Author Archive

The Olympics

Posted by Steve Hobbs

This was written for for the January 2020 edition of The Monthly Milestone  which never appeared as the world was changing so fast that we couldn’t keep up! Even without the Olympics though, 2020 will always be an Olympic year and this has not been edited it since it’s original draft in January.

I am a massive fan of the Olympics. Why? It’s all about what they represent.

Let me start by boring you with some stuff from the 1980s.

My first memory of the Olympics was that grainy beyond-the-Iron-Curtain broadcast of the 1980 Moscow games with Allan Wells benefiting from the Cold War driven USA boycott to win the 100m gold medal (left), and the epically exciting battles of Coe and Ovett in the 800m and 1500m captivating us with their topsy-turvey results. I can remember creating a running track, complete with field events, on multiple pieces of plain paper sellotaped together. I used a compass to draw the bends and Lego men as athletes competing for countries based on the colour of their plastic bodies and legs. Yes, Lego men, compasses and sellotape all existed in 1980 – high definition TV did not.

Allan Wells dipping for glory

Now fast forward to 2012 and that boyhood magic was brought to real life by the London games. I lucked out in the ticket lottery securing tickets for all sorts of events – handball, table tennis, water polo, swimming, hockey, basketball and of course a couple of fantastic nights in the stadium watching the athletics – and I loved it.

Despite what you may now believe about the legacy of those games, and the doping afflictions that we now know surrounded many of the performances, those games and the way people responded to them was as magical as my makeshift running track and got me thinking about how and why the Olympics is so special and why it drove me to create The Milestone Pursuit (a post for different rainy day!).

For me, its actually pretty simple. It’s all about the values, and in particular the sense of enormous pride that comes with the reward from the years of hard work and dedication that the mostly amateur athletes – people with other jobs – put in to become an Olympian. Whether they are standing on a podium or just on the start line, you know that every Olympian is carrying enormous pride.

In an increasingly commercial and professionalised world, where win at all costs mentalities are prevalent (perhaps this is something that will change as consequence of the coronavirus crisis?), things are a little different from the Moscow (and before) era of genuine amateurism and the curmudgeonly among us may even say how people like Ben Johnson have undermined the values or how Olympic legacies are tainted by profligacy and the famously redundant venues in places like Athens and Rio but in my mind that doesn’t diminish from what the Olympics are trying to achieve and what we can take from them.

Like many organisations in the world, the Olympics has a cacophony of values missions, symbols and mottos. To understand more about why the Olympics resonates with me, I looked at them in more detail.

The Olympic symbol (the 5 rings) expresses the activity of the Olympic Movement and represents the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games. Show anyone the Olympic rings and they recognise them immediately – what would a brand owner pay for that – but the precise order of the them, and even what the colours actually are is less important, its what they represent about unity that’s important, the fact they are linked. We are all in it together.

What about the motto?

First what even is a motto? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary a motto is a a short sentence or phrase that expresses a belief or purpose. The Olympic motto is made up of three Latin words: Citius, Altius, Fortius which translates as Faster, Higher, Stronger.

These three words, together, are simply designed to encourage athletes to give their best during competition but also reflect the need for humans to seek progress in all aspects of our existence. There is no word of winning in there, and some say that Olympianism is about taking part rather than winning, and to an extent that is true but it also misquotes what the Olympic movement defines as it’s creed;

“The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”

This really resonates with me. I have always enjoyed sport, I have always tried to improve and while at times in my youth, I may have taken defeat hard, especially in individual sport, I have come to realise that the thing I enjoy most is the competition, and the sense that people and teams are pushing each other to new heights, heights that you may not previously have thought possible.

The creed is credited to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, but he himself took inspiration for it from a speech given to athletes by the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, during the Games of London in 1908. And so we’re back to London again…..

BUT the thing that resonates the most for me is the Olympic values – Excellence, Friendship, Respect. These are less well known than any of the above; 

“Excellence means doing the best we can, on the field of play or in our professional life. The important thing is not winning, but taking part, making progress and enjoying the healthy combination of body, will and mind.”

Excellence is about how hard we try, not the outcome. It is in the pursuit of excellence (and milestones) that we reach new ground / new territory, challenge ourselves and develop and grow. We may not always reach the ultimate milestones, just as few of us will ever become Olympians, but that doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that a pursuit of excellence takes you on that provides the value, the experience and the joy. 

You may not reach your running goal or your career goal (not everyone can be a CEO for example) but that doesn’t matter, its the journey that the pursuit takes you on that is important. Remember though, not to confuse the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of perfection. 

Respect is about “respect for yourself and your body, for other people, for rules and regulations, for sport and for the environment”. No pressure then. In businesses this value might be described as “responsibility” or doing what’s right. That’s hard to do. You can’t always do the right thing, we all have weaknesses, we all have saboteurs. Often we focus too much on what we’re not so good at, when forgiving yourself for that and focusing on being EVEN better at what you’re good at might be a more rewarding route to success. Respecting yourself therefore isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being kind to yourself. As you go through this year, forgive yourself for being cross with someone when it was actually your fault, forgive them for the same, forgive yourself for missing the odd run, but put it right next time. 

“Friendship is at the heart of the Olympic Movement. It encourages us to see sport as an instrument for mutual understanding between individuals, and between people all over the world.” Competing with people does not preclude their friendship, in fact it can drive it. The best, deepest friendships come from shared experiences and in sport we often share experiences with people that others cannot begin to understand. Take time to acknowledge that. The best example of this for me is the finishing line experience in running. In team sports it is customary for players from opposing teams to shake hands at the end, to congratulate one another, to complement one another, to jibe one another and to celebrate together, win or lose. My experience in running is that this often gets missed. Shake hands with people after your race, congratulate them, thank them for the race. It often amazes me how little this is done. My favourite example is from the 2019 Folkestone half marathon, which was run in crazily windy conditions – in the headwind section of the out and back course, I caught up with a solo runner that had been dropped by a group ahead. He then drafted behind me for the next 4 miles, all into a 50 mph wind so strong that I was running about 2 mins per mile slower than my half marathon pace while at half marathon heart rate. When we ran downwind, I picked up the pace and he fell away. By the end i was a few minutes ahead of him. Exhausted, I stopped at the finish line to recover and once he finished he walked straight past me to meet a club-mate, without so much as looking me in the eye. I know I beat him, and I know he was probably exhausted too, but he drafted off me for about a third of the race which he deemed worthy of not so much as a thank you or a well done. Hardly Olympian……anyway, rant over. You get the message, be the one that approaches your competitors, acknowledge their effort, celebrate their success, be Olympian about it. 

So, as you watch this year unfold, and as you watch the Olympics judge for yourself whether the current crop of Olympians, British and beyond carry those values, and judge the value of the Olympics accordingly for its not about the outcome it’s about the way you behave. Not everyone can be an Olympian, but everyone can act like one.

Seems fitting for 2020, with or without the Olympics.


Posted by Steve Hobbs

What crazy times.

We are in the middle of two global pandemics: Coronavirus AND the anxiety that comes with it. On top of ongoing climate change concerns, right after brexit, a messy general election and during Ipswich Town FC’s worst season since last season (okay that one is just me) it’s a massively unsettling time for everyone. Collective anxiety can rarely have been higher among most generations of living adults. 

For us runners, this anxiety is exacerbated by our races being cancelled. The things we live for are being taken away, albeit temporarily and its having an effect. No one really likes change or uncertainty,  you only need look at how financial markets react to pretty much any adverse event to know this and runners like rhythm and routine more than anyone (apart perhaps from financial investors). Track tuesday, tempo thursday, parkrun saturday, long run sunday, we even rename the days of the week around our hobby – who other than runners does that? Without structure, we feel unsettled.

Then there is the not inconsequential matter of futility. You’ve spent months investing in a process that won’t have an outcome. Marathons can be cruel at the best of times – months of training towards a specific goal can be undermined by a sudden change in the ultimate uncontrollable, the weather, for example. With an uncontrollable global pandemic however, you may not even get a chance to try to show what you can do. However, if you dare to use social media to express your sadness or frustration that your race is cancelled rendering your training futile, you will swiftly be told to get things into perspective. You will also be told that training is never wasted, that you will be fitter, stronger and faster for your next training block and of course this is right. If you’re training for a marathon, you will start your next training block further ahead than you started this one, irrespective of the outcome. The strength, the fitness and importantly the experience won’t leave you which is what we said to our athletes after the ridiculously hot London Marathon of 2018, many of whom went on to record big PBs that autumn.

But that’s not really what this blog post is about. This post is about resilience, dealing with the anxiety of change, dealing with the disappointment of unfinished business, not just sweeping it under the carpet.  Of course, people will appeal to you (or berate you) to get things into perspective – when people are dying how dare you get upset when a silly running race gets cancelled? And of course they have a point, especially if you’re going to publicly complain about poor communication from race organisers or whinge that you’ve lost money on a race that you will never run (you will probably actually save money versus what you would have spent incidentally around the race – who hasn’t bought something they didn’t need from an expo, for example).

But like most things in life, this isn’t as straight forward, as binary as that. Sport may not be a matter of life and death but it IS important, more important than we may realise.

Sport, and running within that, has a vital role to play in society. In troubled times, it gives us something to look forward to, it gives us something to aim for, it gives us something to learn from, and quite frankly it gives us a distraction from the stresses of life (that seem to be getting bigger – or perhaps that’s just what happens when you get older, like me). Without sport as an anchor, many of us are bereft. What do we do? What do we talk about? How do we release the tension of all the mounting stresses?

Running in particular has a profound and proven positive effect on our mental health. At this time of heightened anxiety, at the very time that we need that positive effect most, we have had our motivation to run compromised by the cancellation of races. When you layer that on to the runner’s love of routine and structure, it would hardly be surprising if the running community was at sea right now.

Runners are also a hardy bunch though, so what do we do about all this.

 Well, as many of you know, I am a big fan of controlling the controllables, and controlling how you feel about things that you cant control. Yeah yeah, great but what does that actually mean?

First of all, as the lockdown becomes more and more likely it means not letting the speculation affect your training by forming a plan B.

Over the past few weeks, we have worked with our athletes, especially those that are in the shape of their life, to consider entering a small, low key UK race like Boston, Stratford, Newport, Milton Keynes or Southampton that is less likely to be cancelled. 

While we may execute plan B, this was initially a measure purely designed to stop the constant speculation from distracting the athletes from the effort required to execute plan A. We were acting on what we could control, to maintain motivation and those athletes are cracking on very well.

We controlled some controllables, but there is then the issue of controlling how we feel about the things we can’t control.

We feel like we should be saying “it’s just a race, it doesn’t matter”. But that doesn’t really reflect the truth of our feelings and as a result it doesn’t help us deal with it.

Instead, the first step to dealing with all of this is to practice self compassion – it’s okay to be upset, annoyed and frustrated (but be clear that its not okay to be upset, annoyed and frustrated with anyone as it’s no one’s fault and everyone is trying their best in difficult times). Give yourself permission to feel upset about it. Others will feel the same, talk about it, share your feelings, use your coach to share your feelings. 

Then, the second step to dealing with it is to spend some time thinking about what running is to you. Ask yourself why it is important to you.

If it is about the results, personal improvement, personal development and personal bests then try to relax and remind yourself that you are not defined as an athlete or a human by the time you can complete a race in, you are defined by how hard you try to improve. Then, spend some of your lockdown time working out what you want to achieve next. In particular focus on why this goal is important to you, and identify the hurdles that you may need to overcome to achieve it. Then, work out a plan with your coach and get to it, lace up, just run. 

If it is about keeping or getting fit, put your shoes by the front door as a constantly nagging reminder to lace up, get out there, and just run. 

If it is about protecting and nourishing your mental health, having some space and freedom from the stress we are all going to face in the coming days, then relax, put your watch away, delete strava from your phone and get out there. Just run.

Of course, this is an oversimplification as running is many things to many people, but this is about you, and YOU can spend the time you would have spent travelling to races, uploading photos to social media or eating your own body weight in free food after the race working out what running is to you and you’ll come back even stronger once this lockdown is over.

In the meantime, be patient, forgive yourself for feeling frustrated and be forgiving of others too. We’ll ALL feel better in the summer as a result of the positive action you take now. 

By Steve Hobbs


Posted by Steve Hobbs

According to Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. I have found that to be true of running a marathon and of running a vaguely fast marathon among other life goals like becoming an endurance coach or even a parent, so it is perhaps fitting that I headed to South Africa to perform my next seemingly impossible task, the Comrades Marathon.

The race itself is historic, and many others, including Adharanand Finn in his recent book “The Rise of the Ultra-Runner” provide a far superior articulation as to the hallowed nature of this incredible race so I won’t go there. Instead, as an endurance coach, this blog describes my personal experience, and the factors that contributed to what I think I may well reflect on in retirement as my best ever running performance.

I have run 15 or so road marathons. I’ve had good experiences (like in Amsterdam last year), and bad experiences (like in Manchester in April). I know that it doesn’t always go well, and with this race being just shy of 90km long, just shy of 9000 miles away from home, involving over 6000 feet of total elevation gain in an unfamiliar and potentially hot climate, this was new territory for me, and as such there was more than a fair chance that it wouldn’t go well. With my family at home, spooked by my recent Manchester experience (The Thermometer marathon as it has become known) and feeling helpless, the pressure to manage this race well was on.

But before we go into that, why? why do this at all?


Why not.  I’m not the world’s most adventurous person. I like routines, comfort zones and familiarity but I am ambitious, I relish new challenges and I find new experiences refreshing – a change is as good as a rest and all that.  In many ways, running has become my security blanket to cope with complex and stressful living and so from under that blanket I often enter events that carry the opportunity to enjoy a new experience and present a new challenge. I try to choose experiences that I benefit from personally but also ones that will help me become a better coach. I stop short of saying that I chose events specifically so that I can help people who one day chose to do them, but it is part of the thinking. And not being adventurous, I can do all that in the context of the security blanket that running provides for me.

Comrades or any other event for that matter (apart from the London Marathon) has never been on a bucket list for me, but my clubmates, Neil and Simeon, inspired me with their runs in 2014 and when Neil mooted a return in 2019, I felt it might be time.  Despite being an often proudly independent individual, I figured that this experience would be better, like so many others in running, if it was shared, and of course, not being very adventurous, it wasn’t the sort of thing I’d be likely to do on my own.


So having settled on ‘gaining a new experience’ as my why, I turned to the how.  Unlike marathon preparation that has become all about pushing my potential to it’s probable limit, preparation for Comrades was about putting myself in the best possible position to have the best possible experience.

With that in mind, how did I prepare, given that it was all brand new territory for me.

There a number of elements to this.

Long term thinking

To be honest, ultra running had been in the back of mind for a while, I’ve long thought and sometimes said that I envisaged going long as soon as I stopped getting faster over shorter distances which I figured would happen towards my late forties – i.e about now. I think we first discussed a potential future Comrades trip over two years ago, shortly after I had a bad experience at the bakingly hot and undulating 2017 Boston Marathon (2.48). Boston was a chastening experience – a bit like Comrades, none of the hills are particularly difficult in isolation, but the constant rolling up and down eventually takes it’s toll, especially as you’re going as hard as you (I) do in a road marathon –  and I struggled. That heady cocktail, combined with a strategy to take in new experiences led me into running Man vs Horse (2nd V40), the IOW fell running champs (1st v40) and the Beachy Head marathon (2nd overall) in 2017. Good, and most importantly enjoyable runs at all three gave me some optimism that I’d be okay at longer, slower, hillier running. Mixed in with a few road marathons, cross-country and other road and track races, those hilly trail races, where finishing time is of secondary importance to finishing position and enjoyment helped me build strength and confidence and, significantly, I also learned how to pace myself through races that run up and down hills.

Feeling stronger than ever, I pushed on in 2018, running a 2.31 marathon in Amsterdam and plans for 2019 were being formed quickly after, which involved a spring marathon and then Comrades.

Even though I had loosely planned Comrades some way in advance, it was never my sole focus, and to honest, if someone had told me I couldn’t go to South Africa even the week before, I’d have been annoyed but not devastated. It was never an end destination, it was “just” another part of my running and life journey. In terms of the pursuit of my own milestones, a fast road marathon time is currently more important to me than ultra running. That might change I guess (who knows?) which is part of the point – without taking on new and different challenges and having new and different experiences (within the context of some security) how do we know our potential, how do we know what we’re best at? I’m keen to find out.

Short-term specifics

Comrades experts like Lindsay Parry and Bruce Fordyce tell us to train specifically for 6-9 months but that seems largely aimed at the South African ‘fun’ running community for whom Comrades is the equivalent of the London Marathon. As I’ve become stronger over time and am able to sustain higher volumes of weekly mileage anyway (80-100 per week) I didn’t think too much more was necessary so I focussed on a spring marathon with Comrades in the back of my mind until April, albeit I ran the odd long run or hill session with Comrades in mind.

Comrades specifics began as soon as I recovered from Manchester and through a 7 week period, from Manchester (April 7th) to my last (really) long run for Comrades (May 18th), I completed 5 runs of marathon distance or more plus one weekend of 2 x 20 miles back to back, averaging near to 100 miles a week for the last 4 weeks.

I think its important to train for specifics for any event. For Comrardes, this involved getting used to being fuelled by Coca-Cola and potatoes (no gels and rarely water) on runs, doing LOTS of hills and on any vaguely warm day in our inclement spring/early summer which was colder than a South African winter, doing sessions while wearing too many clothes! A particularly memorable session involved continuous loops of the Green Bridge in Mile End Park at threshold pace in full winter gear when I had an hour to kill after dropping my boys off at school one morning, much to the amusement of another baffled parent who was using one the adjacent benches as his mobile office for the hour.  Throughout that period, I was knackered, I ate a lot, I was sometimes a sub-optimal parent and partner but I (we) survived. Was I ready? Who knows, but I was as ready as I was going to be.

Now, what else could I do to maximise my experience?

Research – knowing what I might be up against

Comrades is famous, it is the oldest ultra Marathon and calls itself the ultimate human race. It comes with a mystique and there is a lot of information and, frankly, a lot of scare mongering about the challenge the “up run” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg presents.

In the end, I chose to not overdo the research, experiences are about learning for yourself as much as being told what to do by experienced experts. However, I studied the course profile a bit, and I watched the whole of the 2017 “up run” on Youtube (over several sittings, I might add) and I valued the experiences of Comrades Neil and Simeon.

I came up with a plan.

There were a few things to consider.

Timing – adjusting my body clock

South Africa is only one hour ahead of the UK, but the race would start at 5.30am, (4.30am UK time) requiring a 3am (2am) alarm. For the few weeks prior to the race I made an effort to get up early, have breakfast early and take care of my, er bowels, early so that it wouldn’t be SUCH a shock to the system on race day.

Fuelling – burning fat

The run would be slow and long. On long, slow runs, we metabolise fat to create energy to power our muscles. We can (and do) also store a lot of fat, which is why humans are able to endure seriously long bouts of low intensity exercise – we can walk for days on end. During a 90km race, I would be working at a low intensity, and so would rely on fat as an energy source. Knowing that aid stations were frequent, and well stocked, I decided that I wouldn’t need to take fuel with me. In marathon running, when we are working at a higher intensity, we utilise carbs, or more accurately, glycogen as an energy source which metabolises more efficiently (quickly) than fat and enables fast running. The downside of this energy source is that it’s supplies are limited and that is why we take gels – to top us up. The problem with gels is that they are basically sugar, and while they give you energy or sugar highs, they also lead to crashes so once you start taking them you need to take them frequently – perhaps every half an hour or so. In a race likely to last 7 hours or more, that would mean carrying a lot of gels, and too many can cause intestinal issues as well as being a pain to carry. So it seemed sensible to me to not use them, and I trained without them.

I did however plan to carry a couple as an emergency for late in the race but given the length of this race and the likely calorie requirement (I would burn maybe 5000 calories) what would I drink and eat on the way? The organisers provided energy drinks, water, coke, bananas, biscuits, even potatoes at frequent aid stations. The race is in South African winter but it can still be hot, perhaps 25 degrees, and as I like a good sweat I knew I’d need to proactively replace fluids from the beginning so I planned to replicate my normal marathon strategy of maxing out on the energy drinks from as early as I could in the race to top up carbs in case I was using them but mostly to rehydrate. I also planned to drink coke from halfway (with the caffeine and the sugar providing an energy boost).  Finally, when we sweat, we lose water and we lose salts which are an essential part of how cells that create energy work so I also carried chewable salt tabs with a broad plan to have one every half an hour or so.

Pacing – running a marathon on tired legs

Now, the all important part of any race plan – what shape was I in, and how fast would I therefore run. This is tricky for a distance you have never come close to running before over equally unprecedented elevation levels so while I had a loose target I was never wedded to it, there were simply too many unknowns. In terms of objectives for the race, safe completion was top priority, then all being well a silver medal (requiring a 7h 30 min finish) was my aim with breaking 7 hours also feeling realistic while some people even suggested 6.30 might be possible based on my recent marathon times. Those thoughts all rattled around in my head, but I put it all to the back of mind, there were simply too many unknown variables to be able to plan specifically. Of course I knew roughly what average pace I would need to hit to get to 7 hours and 7 h 30, but that also is fairly meaningless and difficult to manage given the elevation profile.

It seemed sensible to me to be guided by how I felt rather than by numbers.

So I applied the approach that Steve Way took to his first Comrades in 2017 (I promise, Steve, that this is the only time I mention you this time) of running to a measure that would be an accurate reflection of how I felt rather than how fast I wanted to run – I planned to run to heart rate. I think that running using heart rate or new fangled power measures can be limiting – it can scare us if we see our heart rate climbing to a level beyond our expectation and give us cause to slow down which means we might not push the boundaries of what is possible, particularly in training but on this occasion, the dangers of pushing boundaries were too acute, especially after my Manchester experience. My objective was to maximise the experience after all, so I trained using heart rate. I experimented running at different paces over different terrains to see what felt comfortable, what I could sustain for long distance and what broad pace that equated to.

Through this training I learned that heart rate is not an exact science, especially when you’re carrying an already high level of fatigue. I used the London Marathon as an opportunity to practice in a race environment, and the learning was invaluable. I learned then that I could sustain a higher rate, while feeling easy on the legs, than I imagined. In my post about London (which first appeared in The Monthly Milestone), I wrote about how I ran 13 miles including a hard parkrun the day before and then ran to the start. I deliberately started that race with tired legs and I learned that on tired legs, I could sustain a heart rate of up to 140 bpm while the legs felt comfortable and was able to manage at 150 bpm towards the end. I also learned I was able to run a 2.50 marathon relatively comfortably on tired legs, albeit on flat ground. Over the next few weeks, the experiences continued and I formed a simple plan:

To run very easy to half way, keeping HR on flats and downs to around 130 and only allowing it to get to c140 on the hills (the first half is pretty much all uphill), with the aim, at halfway of feeling like I now “just” needed to run a marathon on tired legs. Simple.

Mindset – being relaxed

Perhaps even more important than pacing, was a mental strategy! How was I going to mentally prepare for a run of 7 hours, or 54 miles/87km and not let my brain destroy the experience. I felt intimidated by the distance, the hills, the potential heat, but given I wanted to enjoy the experience, adopting a relaxed and positive (but not over confident) mindset was critical. Not just in the race, but in the few days leading up to it. I also prepared a specific mental strategy for Polly Shortts, the famous 2k long steep incline that comes along in the last 10k and seems to break a lot of people. It preyed heavily on my mind, partly because I had struggled with a similar hill at the end of Man vs Horse (scene of an infamous bum tap as Neil triumphantly overtook my lumbering, languishing frame that day) so I decided to flip it on its head, I chose to look forward to the challenge it would present – it’s arguably the most famous hill in ultra marathon running – and to the experience it would provide and, for further positive thinking, I reminded myself that the race would nearly be over once it was summitted.

Part of that relaxed and positive mindset was about controlling controllables and controlling the way I felt about things outside of my control. This is an especially valuable mindset when travelling – know where you need to be and when, but if a flight is delayed, or a train is late – relax, stay positive and those curveballs will be dealt with all the easier. In a race lasting as long as this, it seemed unlikely that everything would go according to plan so I applied this mindset as well. Being relaxed enables us to be more flexible and adapt when things don’t quite go to plan.

There is a physical, as well as psychological benefit to this. Control, and being relaxed and positive is about keeping heart rate as low as possible. The higher you allow your heart rate to get at any stage, basically the more stressed you are, the more glycogen you burn and the more you are likely to deplete in the race and hit the wall.

Timing, fuelling, pacing, mindset. I was happy with the plan, and I was happy that I also had a plan to deal with things not going to plan!

So how did it play out?

The race itself – 6 hours of 38 minutes of adapting (and good luck)

The relaxed mindset helped me to adapt throughout the race and I got lucky.

The first thing to change was that I was persuaded to carry all of the 5 gels I had brought with me. “You’ve brought them, you can carry them, why not, just in case”. I was also persuaded to carry a flapjack (2, in fact, that I only ate about 2 hours after I’d finished!). This increased the size, weight and the chafing potential of my much patched up old running belt but luckily I had bought 4 (small) pots of Vaseline at Heathrow (they were on offer) so I had plenty to apply at the start line. On producing my collection of Vaseline pots, I was both the source of nerve releasing merriment among my comrades (Neil, Simeon, Duncan and Paul) and the most popular man in Durban as people appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to share the benefit of Boots generous 4 for the price of 3 offer while I applied as much as I could to myself. I failed to apply enough as it turns out as in hindsight, 4 pots at the start was overkill (!?!), I needed some at the end, I’ll spare the detail but put it this way, blood was emanating from an unexpected source, ouch.

Comrades is famous for the emotion of it’s start-line traditions – the national anthem, the singing of shosholoza, (a traditional song of unity and hard work with a lyric that translates as ” Push, push, pushing in the sun, We will push as one”), chariots of fire, the cock crowing which as it turns out (according to Adharanand Finn) is actually a recording of the man who used to pretend to be a cock crowing at the start and then the GUN, and an explosion of ticker tape, excitement, and adrenaline.

And people going off WAY too fast.

South African runners (that make up the vast majority of the field) don’t appear to have got the The Milestone Pursuit’s “Be Patient” memo. They legged it.

It took some control to hold position on the road and to keep it slow. It quickly became clear that running to heart rate was going to be tricky – partly because it was dark and I couldn’t see the screen and partly because I needed to concentrate on not tripping over the marauding herd of wildebeest that had apparently just been let out of captivity in the pens behind us.

I’m not sure what their collective thinking about the fast start is. Perhaps it’s over excitement, over confidence, over ambition or perhaps it was because they wanted to get out of Durban as quickly as they could as this section of the race involves running along Dual Carriageways, flyovers, underpasses, and slip roads. There are some nice sections later in the race, up Inchanga and along the Cato Ridge, for example, but if you think this run is all dirt trails across African bush in the company of giraffes and zebras and circling vultures, think again. The route was presumably designed to be the quickest possible one from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and utilizes the freeway as a result.

As it was still pitch black and we were just going up hill or occasionally back down again my plan to keep heart rate at around 130 became irrelevant as it was always either higher (going up) or lower (coming down) but I did stick to the rule to maximise heart rate going up hill at 145. That meant slowing down at times and it also meant letting others overtake me but that was fine. My experience of hilly running in the last couple of years taught me to relax and enjoy the flats and downs at which I am often faster at than the people who overtake me going up hill.

I resolved to keep heart rate at around 135 on the short flats and downs and below about 145 going uphill – so I was never getting out of breath. Happily at this effort level, l also didn’t feel any burn in the legs running up.

Before long though more flexibility was required, this time in mindset. I think it was about 20k into the race that I started to feel tightness in my right hip. This was unusual and a little concerning. If it felt like that now, how would it feel after 6 hours?….I wondered whether it would eventually seize up completely but what could I do, I knew that getting anxious about it wouldn’t help, so I tried to ignore it but to regularly check in with myself as to whether it was getting worse. The stiffness did get worse for a while and then once the other hip started to get sore as well, it actually stayed at the same level – no better, no worse. Crack on, I thought and soon forgot about it (the hip pain would be replaced by stabbing quad pain later anyway!).

By halfway, of my immediate comrades, I was still running with Paul. Over the past few years, we have enjoyed a supportively competitive relationship. We are very close in age and ability, and we both acknowledge each other’s roles in our development as athletes – we push each other on. We have healthy levels of  mutual respect, and without really planning to, it seemed likely we would run this one together. We reached what we thought was halfway in about 3h 25 (there is no official halfway marker or clock on the course) and we reassessed. We’d run three of the “big five” hills and by now were passing a lot of those fast starters. I felt good but not quite as “fresh” as I’d have liked so after a quick discussion we simply agreed to keep going at the rhythm we had until 30k to go. No pushing on.

Wearing matching club vests and bibs that made it clear that we were both novices and international runners, we were getting loads of support from spectators –  “go Steev, go Poll, work together, novices, WOW!”. Comrades supporters get it dead right. There’s no “you’re nearly there” when you’re not nearly there, no “you got this” when you really haven’t and no “you’re running better than the government” signs. There’s quiet and knowledgeable applause and appreciation for the effort and you feel like they are properly rooting for you as an individual with comments like “keep working, you’re looking good” (although the smell of Braai and the sight of beer is a little offputting). The flip side of this positivity was the occasional sad sight of children asking us for chocolate, rather than the other way round as you might expect at other races. I regret not offloading my flapjacks to them.

More flexibility was required when I finally got the message from Paul. At 30k to go he’d said he was tired and that I should crack on (ironically and typically he was setting the pace through one of the few flat sections at the time) if I wanted to. I didn’t, I thought we were working well together. He repeated the message a couple more times at 25k and 20k and then at an aid station he dropped off.  I had worried that being on my own would be hard for the last 15k or so, but adapting my thinking, I told myself that it was only 15k and the reality that I was now doing this myself, and not relying on Paul actually gave me a boost. Confidence was high as Polly Shortts approached and I was genuinely looking forward to the challenge.

Even though I had seen Polly Shortts on tv I had no idea what it would really be like but I knew it was long (2k) and steep – for comparison, think 10 x Primrose Hills, continuously, after you’ve already run the best part of 50 miles. There was an aid station at the bottom, I took some fluid, a few deep breaths and dug in. Many runners were already walking, or run-walking, but I wanted to run it. I had come his far, I was doing well, on we go. Step by step, through aching hips, I must have passed a dozen people, my heart rate was never higher than 152 and I was delighted to reach the top feeling good.

It was a brilliant moment. There weren’t many spectators on the hill, I seemed to be the only one running, I felt alone, it was MY moment. Feeling good, on I went through a few more undulations as I descended to Pietermaritzburg. Despite stabbing pains in my quads, confidence was high as I passed more people and the 5-4-3-2-1k-to-go markers. I turned a bend into the racecourse that hosted the finish area and saw the first clock since halfway.



There are no clocks on the course and I had my watch set to HR only and while I knew I was going well, I had no idea what this translated to in terms of time. I was amazed, and over the moon.

A few hundred metres remained which amount to a “victory” parade along the best finishing zone I’ve ever experienced and I was done. I had run 54 miles. The distance from London to Canterbury, Colchester or Cambridge. I had been running (nearly) non stop for 6h 38 minutes and 44 seconds with just one stop for a wee (see strava here – it’s real!). I had run the last 26.2 miles in about 3h 06 minutes, for a 13 minute negative split. I ran the 13th fastest time of anyone in the entire race over the final section from Polly Shortts. I had come 89th (at the first checkpoint I was 1,116th) I was still alive, and I had mostly enjoyed the experience.

From Strava – The red line is heart rate, the blue line is pace, the grey shaded area is the course profile – can you spot the wee break?

Perhaps it was because I focussed on enjoyment that I ran so well. The early caution that we showed clearly paid dividends but I was also lucky. The weather had been perfect, – cool early on, little wind, and while it was getting warmer under the midday sun, it wasn’t baking hot. Also, as I ran the final 7k from Polly Shortts, I remember thinking how lucky I am with my physiology. I am proud of what I get out of my body, but I am lucky to be blessed with a body that can endure events like this. I don’t often get stomach issues, as befall others, for example, and a recent medical showed how strong and big both my heart and lungs are. In my head, I thanked my parents for my genetics!

What a mad experience.

But it wasn’t over.

Part of that finishing line flourish was some fantastic cheers from our support crew (the families of the other comrades) who after cheering me home, told me I’d come 89th, forgave my air punches, provided some much needed hugs and didn’t judge the tears. They also helped me move as I couldn’t stand up once I was sitting or sit down once I was standing as my hips were now so tight I couldn’t bend over or down.

But, what of the others? They were all on track. Fan-tas-tic! The only better feeling than knowing you had a good day, is knowing everyone else was having one too, and they all came home safely having achieved their goals with similar emotional responses to my own. Even the normally emotionally reserved northerner, Paul Gaimster, was subject to warm embrace.

Comradeship – the real experience

And this is what the experience was REALLY all about. Comradeship. Comradeship with my VPH friends, their supporters, other Brits, and indeed all the other people in the race. I also sensed comradeship with people back home through the humbling messages of support beforehand, and of congratulation afterwards.

Paul and Neil had both finished in under 7 hours, Duncan had run 7.22 for the silver medal he narrowly missed last time he attempted Comrades, and there was redemption for Simeon who got sick (but finished) and had a thoroughly unpleasant experience last time. And then of course there was Rodney, completing his 10th consecutive Comrades which is a landmark permanently celebrated by a green number that will always be his.

Forget the numbers, and the medals though, we had shared a once in a lifetime experience and shared experiences create bonds. I am certain that we all achieved what we wouldn’t have done alone. I often say running is a team sport and while there are better literal examples of that, there have been few events that capture the sense of collective achievement than this one.

Celebrations took the form of massage, some beers and watching the pace “buses” (pacing groups) come dancing and singing home in 30 minute intervals until the last one, the 12 hour bus which came home just before the famously dramatic 12 hour cut off which was quite something to watch. As darkness was falling, people who had been out on the road since before sunrise were taking their final few steps, some arm in arm with other competitors either because they wanted to share their day or because they literally couldn’t stand alone, let alone move forwards such was the fatigue in their bodies. And with the sound of a gun, the 12 hours was up, the finish line was closed, and everyone made their way home. Bonded by success or failure, they were bonded by the most innate of human activities, running.

Like all good races Comrades has a slogan, “Sizonqoba” – Together We Triumph. Indeed we did, and the impossible was done.

Running is about community

Posted by Steve Hobbs

April was an interesting month. You probably saw what I wrote about my Manchester Marathon experience. This time I want to cover a bit about what’s happened since then.

Firstly, it took me 10 days to be vaguely recovered. I won’t lie, I felt utterly rubbish for 10 days. I ran, and it was broadly ok, but I was totally wiped out and felt quite unwell for a while. So much so in fact, that I decided to get some blood tests to check I didn’t have a life threatening disease or the early onset of the male menopause. I didn’t. In fact the day after I had the bloods taken, I felt normal again. Typical I guess. I’m pretty convinced now, by the way, that I was unknowingly unwell in Manchester and that’s why my temperature rose to the scary levels it did.

Let’s not go back there, I now felt better and so ventured out into the lovely North Downs for some unstructured long hilly running. Lots of space, lots of clean air, freedom, no pressure, it was a joy and so emerged my plan for the London Marathon.

I resolved to run London for “fun” and as training for Comrades Marathon which takes place six weeks after London. With preparing for that race in mind (86k of hot hilly South African road running), I simply couldn’t have afforded the same amount of recovery time as I needed after Manchester, even if I felt capable of running that hard again so soon.

Decision made, I trained normally all week and did all Icould to makesure i didnt hit the startline ‘feeling good’. That included a fast-ish parkrun the day before and then a run to the start  of the race from my East London home, part of which was along the course which provoked some amusing exchanges with race marshals. I then ran the race purely using a (low) heart rate to guide me.

I ran relatively easy for the first half (HR c 133), and let loads of people go past me as I passed halfway in 1.26, high fiving as many people, especially children as i could to make up for all the times I’ve ignored them while in a racing mindset.

Credit to Gigi Giannella

And it was fun. I picked up the pace a little in the second half and saw first hand how wrong so many people get their pacing in the marathon, but most of all I had fun. I actually felt sad as the end neared as I was having such a good time. That was a new experience!

I also had some other thought provokingly unexpected feelings. I felt like I did when I first ran a marathon in 2001 (in 3.37) when the joy of participation and then completion trumped any thought of time, personal bests, or age category placing.

After Manchester and indeed because of Manchester it was extremely therapeutic to have a reminder that running isn’t just about time based performance or race position. It’s also about freedom, space, community, and loads of other things that you know yourself and/or have been written about by way more erudite people than me. But, crucially, it’s also about learning, especially about yourself. Every single run and every single race is a new experience that brings new thoughts to your mind, that helps you process what’s going on in your life in a different way. In busy, chaotic, ambiguous and stressful times, the freedom, the space and the opportunity that running provides to connect with ourselves is invaluable.

This made me think about what running is.

Running is a sport, where we can push ourselves as hard as we choose in the search for our physical limits.

Running is also a community based pastime, where we connect with people and most importantly where we connect with ourselves.

And as such running, more than any other sport, epitomises my belief in the mutually beneficial coexistence of sporting excellence and sport for all. Elite athletes inspire us to participate for they help us to see what is possible while they simultaneously benefit from our participation. The more people are interested in running, and the more famous people like Charlotte and Josh become, the more brands and businesses invest in the sport and the greater the opportunity for elite athletes to make a living from running , in turn enabling them to further inspire us with world class performances. Elite athletes may not inspire non-runners, but they mayinspire sub-elite, who inspire the participation masses, who may well inspire non-runners. In an age of acute and widespread obesity and mental health problems, this can only be good, surely?

Sporting excellence’s role alongside sport for all, is best epitomised by the London Marathon. It is something that everyone can do. For me, that idea is perhaps best articulated by my own weekend which began with a Saturday morning run with Charlotte Purdue discussing her ambitions and the race plan that would see her become the third fastest British woman of all time, and ended late Sunday afternoon looking, unsuccessfully, for Vicki Woodall on the course as she was completing her first (and only!) marathon in 6h25 on her way to raising over £1m for children with cancer.

Both humans, both running, both utterly inspiring. I challenge you to name another sport that can produce that at the same event.

Running – sport or community based pastime? It’s both, but you knew that already didn’t you!

Achieving another marathon personal best – arbitrary goals

Posted by Steve Hobbs

This was an interesting one to write. A new marathon PB of 2.30.41 but more importantly, a new set of experiences to draw on. This piece is, in part, me processing what happened so please forgive me for its length and indulge my reflections. You don’t have to, of course. You can just swipe past.

The build up – nothing to lose
I was cock-a-hoop with my last race in Amsterdam (2.31.46) as I had finally broken through the 2.35 “barrier” and had secured a marathon performance I felt that reflected my capability. I also felt that it provided an opportunity. I felt that I now had license to really go for it, to take some risks and see if I could push my aging frame even harder and go into hallowed territory under 2.30. I had previously never really believed it was possible for me, despite encouragement from non running friends that with 2.35 to my name, I was so close. I now thought, I have 2.31, I’m happy with that so why not try and go quicker – I have nothing to lose. Keep that thought in mind later, when you read what happened!

I also had a strong level of fitness to build on, but after a bit of a break over christmas I got ill. A chest infection at the turn of the year set me back a few weeks but learning from the past I took my time and recovered reasonably quickly and by early February I was returning to some form so set my sights on Manchester as the sub 2.30 attempt.

This piece isn’t actually about the training this time, but by way of summary I put in record numbers of weekly miles, accumulating to about 750 over 8 weeks, and a strong performance in the VPHTHAC club 20 mile championship race (1.53.30) gave me encouragement. But, in admittedly difficult conditions, I ran 72.22 in The Big Half, and despite the kudos of a personal best it was a bit off what I wanted from that race and I knew then that 2.30 was borderline but of course I was going to try – I had nothing to lose, remember!

So let’s fast forward to the race. What happened? I’ve broken my experience into stages.

Stage 1 – it never felt on.
Before the race and in the early stages of the race, I didn’t feel as fresh, loose or relaxed as I would have wanted or have felt in the past. In the first hour, I had a slight stitch, a little backache and hip soreness. But I told myself this would pass and soon settled into a rhythm, a few seconds behind a pack that included the acclaimed ultra runner and former international marathoner Steve Way and stuck to my plan even though it always felt a little harder than it should have done. Manchester is a flat course, but there are some inclines and each one felt harder than I would have expected.

Stage 2 – it actually was on.
I passed halfway in just over 74 minutes, quicker than planned, and so I consciously slowed a little. I passed 20 miles in 1.53.40 ish, more or less on target. I passed Steve Way and his now smaller pack, and by mile 22 as I was holding my pace and catching a few more guys ahead of me I actually thought, for the first time, that it was on. I had 2.30 in my sights. As I passed mile 23, I had 19 minutes to complete the last 3.2 miles….I could do this, I thought, but perhaps as an early clue to what was about to unfold, I couldn’t work out what pace I needed to run at to bring 2.29.59 home. The maths was too hard.

Stage 3 – it most definitely wasn’t on
By now, I felt extremely tired on any incline, and at one stage I nearly stopped until I literally shouted at myself to keep going. Then in the last mile or so, I developed a limp, on both legs. My left quad was sore, as was my right calf and right hip. At the time I thought it was just muscle damage, I was developing an injury. My brain failed to connect the failing leg mechanics to the stars that were starting to blur my vision (and not just because Steve Way sauntered back past me) or the fact I couldn’t definitively state that I was inside the last mile until I actually saw the finish line. As I limped, I slowed and I knew my race was done, that I wouldn’t get under 2.30, I now just wanted to finish and finish I did.

Stage 4 – 2 more hours of pain.
I stopped my watch (a seemingly pavlovian response to stopping running) and as if in sync, my body stopped working too. In hindsight, what I thought was simple muscle damage that Joe Dale would be able to Fix, was actually me hitting the wall. It wasn’t hitting the wall in that getting tired kind of a way, it was hitting the wall in a Callum Hawkins, Jonny Brownlee, David Wyeth, Annie Faye kind of a way. I’ve always wondered how, in particular Callum and Johnny didn’t know what state they were getting into, and be able to take appropriate action, but now I do – your brain simply doesn’t tell you. You think its something else, you think you are in better shape than you actually are, you think you can do it. Given that I always talk about how the brain is designed to protect us from danger and will always ask you to stop before your body is ready to, this can only mean that in these moments of extreme fatigue, the brain must stop working too. I had never thought that was possible before. To be fair, when I’m coaching and I talk about switching the part of your brain off that is designed to protect you, and letting your heart drive you on when it hurts, I do say “up to a point”. The challenge is knowing when that point is!

My brain stopped working for a while afterwards too. People kept asking me questions. I thought i was lucidly responding to them all, taking pride in accurately stating my name, and date of birth for example, but again, in hindsight, there was a clue to my condition in my repeated responses to their question of how are you feeling – “I just want to go to sleep” . I think it was that that prompted them to plonk me in a chair and wheel me to the makeshift A&E department which is what the medical tent turns out to actually be. Annoyingly, despite my best efforts at getting some blissful shut-eye, no one would let me sleep (or let me drink, not that I was that thirsty – i just wanted to sleep), and once they had inserted a thermometer where the sun doesn’t shine, and established my core temperature was at 39.7 degrees it was ice blankets all the way. It took an hour of that to get my temperature back to acceptable levels, and a further hour for my skin to warm up again and for my family to arrive by which time I was feeling more normal. I look terrible in the pictures I made my wife take, and yet I was being told that i looked a lot better! It then became clear that they were actually a bit worried for a while, although no one said (and I didn’t ask) what, specifically, they were worried about. A packet of crisps, some water, some hugs, some tears and I was physically capable of leaving two painful hours after finishing the race.

Before I move on and analyse why I think this happened, it’s worth thanking the amazing people that helped me. There are volunteers, like Joan of the the Red Cross who had traveled from the Scottish borders, to wipe me down, change my ice blankets and undress and dress me, and then there are A&E professionals (Doctors and nurses) who are seconded to a private firm hired by the Manchester Marathon to provide first class emergency care. Those staff get all expenses covered and a couple of hundred quid in their pocket for the weekend in return for putting thermometers up hirsute and vaseline lined arses like mine. Perhaps I was lucky as I was their first finish line patient for the day, but I received excellent care and attention.

Thank you Joan, Rebecca and Caspar, you sorted me out. But why did it happen in the first place? I don’t really know, but here are some thoughts.

It is possible, but unlikely, that I was a little dehydrated. I drank what I always drink before the race – soluble vitamin c with breakfast and then a carb/electrolyte drink just before the race. During the race, which was well stocked with drinks stations, I had some, but not much, water. I also had two carb and electrolyte drinks handed to me by friends (Ewan at 8miles ) and family (at 16 miles). I maybe didn’t drink enough of either of them but I can’t believe it would have made too much difference as I never train with drinks. I also had my normal mixture of gels – pure carbs, carbs + electrolytes and carbs + caffeine. So nothing too unusual there. I wasn’t desperate for fluid afterwards although I did get a little cramp each time I was asked to roll over on the bed in the medical tent.

Given that I had a core temperature approaching 40 degrees, it is possible that I was unknowingly fighting a bug of some kind. At times in the last fortnight, I felt that I might be getting a cold but passed it off as the usual maranoia and I’ve not felt great since the race but of course that could be the stress of the race. Who know!

In the days leading up to big races I normally try to keep my heart rate as low as possible and control how I feel about external stresses. I also make a concerted effort to keep calm, and keep my heart rate low on the morning of the race. For whatever reason, this didn’t really happen this time. I’ve had a relatively stressful period of managing work, home, family and personal balances and a few things added to that in the days leading up to the race. No one is to blame for this, as it is about how I handle the stress more than the stressor itself but on the way to the start-line I certainly felt more on edge, and probably had a higher heart rate than I would have wanted.

My intention was always to try and finish at the significant, but arbitrary, milestone of 2.29 – which requires an average of 5.43 minutes per mile. I say arbitrary because it is just a unit of time – 2.30.01 is only two seconds slower than 2.29.59, after all. My intention was to set off at 5.41ish pace which is broadly where I had trained, and be half way in 74.30 ish. Two things threw this out slightly as I went out a little quicker, with 4 of my first 5 miles ahead of 5.41 and I got to halfway in just over 74 minutes.

First, Steve Way looked like he was pacing a team-mate at 2.30 pace and was 50m ahead of me the whole way. I didn’t want to catch them as I’m okay with running on my own, but I tried to keep them close. which I did until I actually went past them (probably a mistake as they ultimately beat me) at around 20 miles.

Second, according to Garmin I ran a short race, which I put down to either Garmin inaccuracy or running smarter race lines (legally, I hasten to add, when you run alone in a long race it can be illuminating how badly some people run tangents on the course, especially when they’re in a group). It is possible that I ran less than 13.1 miles by halfway and hence I was quicker than plan. I don’t measure total distance when I’m running, preferring to use average pace (see below on mental strategy) to guide me so had no means of checking that on the course.

Mental strategy
As I said, I NEVER felt that great, and as such I never thought that 2.29 was on during the race. I also never expected to get so close. If anything I thought I’d be battling from much earlier than I actually did. What kept me going, but also ultimately led to the collapse, was my mental strategy. I have written about this before but its worth doing so again. I break all of my races up into chunks of time, rather than distance. The logic behind this is that time passes anyway, so you may as well fill it by running, but distance, especially in the marathon can be daunting. On this occasion, just as I did in Amsterdam I broke the race up into 3 sections of 30 minutes, and then 12 sections of 5 minutes (I’ll explain the 5 minute strategy shortly). This mentality turns the marathon into a two and hour half run, rather than a 26 mile one. Seems easier!

When I set off and didn’t feel great, I just told myself to not panic, stay patient and run at goal pace for 30 minutes, I know I can do 30 minutes with no problem. And so 30 minutes passed. Then I told myself to do it again and then once more – I knew I could run at goal pace for 90 minutes, I’d done it at the club 20. Even if I wasn’t feeling 100% I knew I could do that, and then who knows what might happen – there’s only one hour left and I had a plan for that – 12 x 5 minutes. Those that follow my training on strava or are coached by me know that I often structure tempo runs in 5 minute sections. This is because I think that 5 minutes is both a short enough amount of time to do anything for, almost irrespective of how bad it feels, and a long enough amount of time to actually make significant forward progress. When I do this, I simply focus on maintaining my pace in the 5 minute section I am in, and not look ahead. I aim to hit my pace for 5 mins at a time, and then move on to the next 5 minutes. As I knew I was slightly ahead of 2.29, and as I knew I was struggling a bit, I planned, on the fly, to hit 5.45 pace for each 5 min block. And it went well for the first 6-7 of them. In fact, I managed to run some of them closer to 5.40 and it was at this point – around mile 21-22 – that I thought for the very first time, that it might actually be on. So I carried on but shortly after, with less than 5k to go, it started to unravel.

By focusing on the short term goals (5 minute goals) I was able to keep pushing and ignore the way my body was feeling until eventually my body really did fight back. I did this because I thought I had nothing to lose, I had given myself a licence to see what could really be done. I tested my body in a way that it had never been tested before and the strategy helped me do that but also ultimately led to the collapse. Had I not implemented this strategy, I am certain I would have slowed earlier, finished considerably later, but been more together at the end.

So, it’s pretty much impossible to know exactly what caused the meltdown, in truth I suspect it’s probably a little bit of all of everything but how does all this leave me feeling and what do I do in future?


What to make of it all?

It’s been a difficult one to process. The vaguely dramatic physical meltdown meant that I never had that euphoric “I’ve finished the marathon” feeling and despite overwhelmingly positive messages it hasn’t quite felt real as a result. It has felt a bit distant. The existence of video footage at the end means that I now think about the finish with that as the image, rather than what I actually experienced through my own slightly starry eyes.

There is, too, a small element of disappointment that I missed sub 2.30 by such a narrow margin but that is outweighed by a significant amount of pride in running 2.30.41 and that I managed to push through and produce that performance when I was sub-par. I have two young boys, and values that I am attempting to promote with them is that we always try our best and that we never give up. I am proud to have done that in their presence and we have agreed that my medal, which they keep in their bedrooms, will now be a symbol for never giving up.

Never giving up as a value requires a footnote though – never give up unless you’re putting yourself in genuine physical and mental danger (rather than discomfort) especially if the goal is essentially arbitrary. In life, it is entirely appropriate to walk away from things that endanger your mental wellbeing, like stressful jobs that perhaps pay well (another arbitrary goal?) but drag you down. Perhaps it’s okay to stop chasing arbitrary running goals too, certainly when they endanger you.

I got very close to my arbitrary goal, I’m amazed and proud of getting so close but really I am just proud to have run a marathon in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 41 seconds. By the end of the year, I will be close to the top 100 marathon runners in the UK. I like those outcomes but I do not tie my self-worth to them. Instead, I tie my self-worth to how hard I work in training and in races and being focused on process rather than outcome, it is more significant to me that I have now learned that I need to be very careful because when I give myself license to take risks, things like this can happen. and lets be clear I am not proud that I exposed my family to what never giving up can sometimes lead to and I am not proud that I forced them to temporarily stop their tour of Manchester City’s stadium to come and get me from the medical tent, especially as the Manchester City supporting one, Leo, is autistic and hates last minute changes to plans and big crowds of noisy people (I was discharged at about peak finishing time). I don’t want that to happen again.


What does it mean for me and for you?

The truth is that I don’t think any of this would have happened had I been trying to run 2.33, for example, rather than the rounder number of 2.29. The key to successful marathon running is to focus on running the race you are in the condition to run, not to focus on an arbitrary goal. So, if you’re reading this with a forthcoming marathon in mind, as so many of you probably are, I would urge you to spend time working out what condition you are actually in, rather than thinking about the arbitrary goal that might be slightly faster or slightly slower than your condition. It’s what I always do with the people I coach, and it’s what I will be returning to in the future myself – that doesn’t mean I won’t be brave, or ambitious, and it won’t ever mean I give up, it just means I will be more considered and more flexible when I need to be.

Right, what’s next



Sign-up to receive our fab newsletter

Posted by Steve Hobbs

We’ve created an exciting newsletter (we think it’s exciting anyway) containing all sorts of exclusive stuff and in the age of data transparency and cleanliness you need to opt in to receive it.

If you’re interested, all you need to do is complete a simple form by clicking on ‘Sign-up’ below;


This will mean you’ll be on our mailing list, and will soon receive a ONE OFF, pilot version of the newsletter that will give you an example of what ongoing versions will contain. You can then decide if you’d like to receive more.

Now, we realise that the world is full of free content, just as it’s full of free training plans and endless often conflicting advice about running and fitness. So why on earth would you sign-up for this?

Here are some examples of the things you will get. We will provide a number of consistent features including;

  • Our Elite spotlight – in-depth updates from international athletes, Josh Griffiths and Charlotte Purdue into their training. This won’t be the kind of stuff you get on social media, it will be in-depth analysis of their training, including a description of what they were looking to get out of it and how it went for them – our pilot email contains a great example from Josh.
  • Athlete spotlight – insights into the performance of real people – our clients
  • Details of our Pop-up run sessions. Join us and run with other people like you at a time and location that works for you (in the London area). These coach-led sessions will “pop-up” at various times and locations and will have a varied structure. For example we might meet in Battersea Park at 7pm on a Wednesday for tempo running, Hampstead Heath at 8am on a Thursday for hills or King’s Cross at 1pm on a Monday for speed work. There may be some consistency, but there will mainly be variety – we want everyone to be able to access at least one of our sessions each month and of course, as well as being able to run with other people you’ll also get to actually meet us for real and experience real (not online) coaches. The only way to know about them is to sign-up.
  • The Milestone Pursuit – we will also report on the progress of British marathon running, inline with our own pursuit – to help improve the standards at the top end of our sport.

We will also host unique perspectives from experts on the following topics ;

  • Nutrition
  • Kit
  • Injury management
  • Psychology
  • Running technique
  • Preparing for the London Marathon

All the content will come with depth and it will be a lot of work, we don’t mind that, we want to give you true value. We’re not after clicks, or ad Revenue or brand engagement, we’re after value to you, real people that run.

What’s not to love?

Up for it? “opt-in” here; Click here to opt-in – go on, go on, go on, go on……..

Achieving a Marathon Personal Best: Luck, Environment, Training, Race Strategy

Posted by Steve Hobbs

Amsterdam Marathon, 2.31.46. Blimey.

So much to say. Let’s start with some context.

My personal best was 2.35.55 (set at Edinburgh in 2016) and this was my fourth attempt to beat that. I’d trained well and those that asked me about my objective before I raced would have heard me say something like “around 2.35 would be nice”, but in reality I was confident I would run a PB, and I was optimistic about running as fast as 2.33. A good day with everything going my way might end with 2.32 to my name while 2.31 was the stuff of spine-tingling dreams.

So, how on earth did it happen?

On reflection, I’ve identified 4 factors – luck, environment, training (obv) and race strategy. Sorry, there’s a lot in this one. Bear with me.


  1. Luck

In each of the 4 road marathons I’ve run since Edinburgh something has gone against me in last few weeks before the race:

As the wonderfully articulate Kelly Clark would say “that’s the crapshoot of the marathon for you”. However, before Amsterdam, the running gods were on my side. Firstly, with illness. I managed to avoid new school term illness through the crucial last 4 or 5 weeks before taper and then was sick not once, but twice in taper. A short-lived flu bug thing followed by a stomach bug thing kindly came along one after the other with a good 10-12 days to recover properly, and in fact it’s arguable that the days off I was patiently forced to take actually helped me. What a serendipitous bonus. Then, on the day, the weather was perfectly cool, overcast, a light breeze – especially ideal conditions when you’ve trained all summer in the extremes of an over-heating planet. So, luck: tick.


  1. Environment

I am also incredibly lucky to be part of the flourishing team at Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets AC – we have a number of runners of a range of ages, abilities and experiences all pushing each other on, a number of whom also ran Amsterdam (and ran very, very well). This counts for something in training, where you need to work hard to keep up both literally and virtually (now that we live in a Strava and WhatsApp driven age of transparency over training progress), AND in the race when I needed to hold my pace.

When it comes to a marathon, more digital tech, in the form of race tracker apps, facilitate our thirst to follow our club mates online and comment (mostly supportively) on the race as it unfolds through multiple WhatsApp or Facebook groups. As I was ploughing through the back half of the race, I could hear the animated commentary. “Hobbs has held pace through 30k, he’s still going at 35k”, and I really didn’t want them to be able to colourfully speculate that “Hobbs is in the pain cave”, or “tough 5k for Hobbs” as they had done in previous races, especially Boston.

Rather than peer pressure I see this as the power of a supportive crowd. Of course, we all rib each other, often daily, about performance, running style, age, capability, even clothing choices, but when push comes to shove we want to see our team-mates run well, not least because it inspires us to run even better ourselves. During the race, I knew I was placing second for the club, and I wanted to run well and I wanted to stay there, if I slipped even by a minute I knew I’d be overtaken such is the talent in our club. I had to be brave. So, when you add that environment to the merciful luck I had with the ideal conditions and well-timed illnesses, you can see why things might go well. What else?


  1. Training

Oh yeah, training. Where do I start? Let’s go back 4 weeks to this pleasing session; (https://www.strava.com/activities/1862487121) –  an over-distance run (27 miles) that included 90 mins of tempo (either a little quicker, a little slower or at goal marathon pace which was 5.50 mins per mile) split into 3 x 30-minute sections. The key part of this session, inspired by Josh (Griffiths) who ran something similar before his stellar London marathon in 2017, was the third block of 30 minutes which I planned to do after about 2h 15 of running to try to replicate running that painful last 10k of the race where, frankly, pain or glory awaits.

Aside from that there are three other things worth highlighting about that game-changing run;

This was a breakthrough session, one that I had planned but failed to execute in each of the last 3 marathon training blocks and it gave me huge confidence in my fitness AND helped form the plan for race day.

The training is obviously more than one session though. Clearly, I had to build up patiently to that and I actually took it on a stage the following week by doing 2 x 45 mins at tempo albeit not for 27 miles this time  (https://www.strava.com/activities/1889525677) However, this result was really the outcome of over 2 years of disciplined training since Edinburgh. Even though my results over the marathon distance haven’t shown it, I felt I was getting stronger and faster with each training block. My ability to sustain a greater volume of miles each time (and I really believe that there is no substitute for volume – I’ll post about that another time) and the PBs I have run at every other distance in that period, including most recently a hugely confidence boosting 16.01 over 5k in the summer, were strong indicators of evidence of that.

Also worth noting is something that I’ve said before that in marathon training blocks that track based speed work hasn’t really featured. I do the odd short session to sharpen my legs, but I’ve concentrated instead on long tempo runs, volume, and other races including fells, trails and cross country which act as a good substitute for those lung busting, endorphin releasing VO2 max sessions. And then of course, in this training block, we had the greatest summer to train in ever. It was hard for a while but I was convinced that if I could train well in the heat (something I have struggled with in the past), it would have massive benefit in the autumn.

This effect was exacerbated by a fantastic summer training camp, I mean family holiday, across Europe, where it was even hotter than the UK, including a two-week spell in Croatia where I was looking forward to building some volume. Croatia is an increasingly popular and spectacular tourist destination and I highly recommend it but the running is hard. And I highly recommend it! As well as being the official name of Croatia’s coastline, a Dalmatian coast is the name of the geographical feature where mountains run parallel to the coast (source: my geography degree) which means that you either have to run along the narrow, winding coast (where the only place to put a road is, which therefore gets full of traffic and is pretty dangerous) or up the mountain. I ran up the mountain.  Slow, challenging and at times a bit technical for a flat-track bully like me, I planned 3 long runs, or rather as I saw it, 3 chances to beat the mountain;

I felt those rugged hills changed everything – I felt way stronger than I’d ever been, AND I ended up coming back from holiday having lost weight! An unexpected bonus given that I frequently refuelled on unhealthy doses of pizza, first class (and cheap) Croatian gelato and local beer throughout the trip.

Training + environment + luck: tick, tick, tick.


  1. Race Strategy

The last piece of this hindsight jigsaw is the all-important race strategy. I have written about my 5 minutes by 5 minutes strategy before http://themilestonepursuit.com/distance-time-choose/–  I used it successfully for the Wokingham half marathon earlier this year and it has worked in training for a while now. I’ll try and explain more. During those brutally long solo tempo training runs, I break the overwhelming overall task up into a manageable series of continuous 5-minute reps. I set my watch to lap pace and lap time and single-mindedly focus on staying on the pre-planned pace for 5 minutes at a time, and when I reach the end of the 5-minute segment, I hit the lap button and just keep going. Call it mindful running if you want (I should probably give it a proper name), I focus on the present – I don’t think back and I don’t look (too far) forward. I run for 5 minutes at a time, 5 minutes at a time, 5 minutes at a time – all I need to do is hold this pace for 5 minutes at a time.

Now, that’s great in training, but much trickier in a race, especially a marathon as its obviously a lot of 5-minute segments and executing that would require a lot of mental energy. However, in my experience the marathon usually feels comfortable until after halfway, to about 15 miles or perhaps 1h 45 or so. I was also confident from my training that I could sustain the pace required for at least 90 minutes so I decided to be more relaxed in my approach up to that point and planned to break the first 90 minutes into 3 x 30 minutes segments – just like the 27-mile session, only this time it was obviously continuous. My objective for each 30-minute segment was to hold marathon pace in that section and not worry about what had already happened. I had practiced this in training and I also spent time visualising the race feeling easy until 90 minutes. It felt achievable.

Now, this is where I envisaged the race really beginning.

One of the many advantages of running a fast marathon is that it is only two and a half hours (and a bit) of running – it is actually over quickly. My logic was that if the first 90 minutes feels relatively easy that just leaves one hour to navigate, a tricky hour of course, but its just one hour, and I planned to break it up into 12 x 5 minutes segments. Just like I had practiced in training my plan was simply to hold pace for 5 minutes at a time and then do it again, and again and again. In effect my plan was to treat the race as a 2h 30 run (plus whatever was left) rather than a 26.2 mile one.

Furthermore, my intention was to ignore distance markers on the course apart from halfway and 32k (to check that I wasn’t running dramatically over or under distance rendering the pace on my watch inaccurate). Distance can become daunting, whereas time will pass even if you do nothing so somehow doesn’t seem so hard -I find it easier to focus on holding pace for 5 minutes than to hold pace until the next mile or km marker. I was really happy with this plan, I felt relaxed and actually really looking forward to executing it.

So how did it pan out?

My pre-race plan was to get to half way in 76.25-76.30, and I went through in 76.09 but I was feeling in control and running well. At one point, I had switched off from distance so much that I had to work out where I thought I was on the course. At no point did I have that dreadful feeling of “aaaagh, I’ve done 18 miles and I’ve still got 8 to go” that I’ve had in previous marathons. Sure, there were a couple of wobbles and a little anxiety that I was overcooking it but by and large I was feeling good and it was just me, my legs, time and a few other runners.

Now crunch time – the so often painful last hour and a bit. I concentrated hard on holding pace for each 5-minute split and while I began to slow a little as we headed south away from the Amstel river and back into the breeze, navigating the increasingly tough inclines of underpasses and bridges as we went, I never let the pace slip past goal pace and the 5-minute segments kept ticking by. In fact, I was so firmly focussed on looking up the road, staying as tall as I could, and holding my pace that I ran over into 6 minutes a couple of times, which I then saw as a good thing, as it would just reduce the amount of time I’d need to run at the end!

Before I knew it, there was only 20 minutes left, something like 6k, and once I’d worked out that sub 2.30 was out of the question (it was never in the question) and even though I was definitely tiring, I convinced myself to stick to the plan. It helped that I was passing a good number of other runners, and once out of the famous Vondelpark I was willing the magnificent 1928 Olympic stadium to re-appear and so it did much quicker than I imagined and I was delighted to see 2.31.xx on the finish line clock as I rounded the final bend of the track with 100m to go.

Prior to that tumultuous point, just like in my training runs, I didn’t know my overall time as I only had lap time set on my watch and while I obviously used the on-course clocks towards the end and thought I might be heading for 2.31, you can never fully trust your in-race mental arithmetic so I wasn’t exactly sure where I would finish. I remember feeling relieved that it wouldn’t require a “sprint” finish to get under the arbitrary unit of time that each minute represents, although I did remind myself that I may never get the luck, the environment or the fitness to run this fast again, so I didn’t let up the pace and there was even a rare sight of me nearly smiling down the home straight as I realised what I was about to do.

I was so happy. I thanked everyone and anyone within a 50-yard radius, shed a little old man tear and waited for my inspiring team-mates to come triumphantly down that amazing finishing straight, one by one, bang on their own schedule. As I congratulated them, each one of them immediately asked me how I had done, and when they each looked happy and a little stunned it started to become real. I had run the race of my life, finished in 2.31.46 and no matter how lucky I am, how much I am a product of the environment I am in, how the training or the race plan worked or didn’t work, no one can EVER take that away from me.

Now, what’s next?

Charlotte Purdue at the European Championships

Posted by Steve Hobbs

Charlotte is racing in the European Championships Marathon on Sunday – here is how she prepared….in her words…


My first training camp in St Moritz. I’ve been to loads of places in Europe for training but surprisingly never St Moritz before so I was excited to come here and see what all the fuss was about. I’m here with British Athletics before the European Championships which are next week in Berlin.

I’ve been up here for the last 5 weeks. We are at 1,800m Altitude. I respond really well to Altitude so that’s a big reason why I chose to come here. I can honestly say it’s great here for training. There’s a great mix of running routes which are straight from the door (you don’t need a car at all). There are hilly runs but also flat ones around the lakes of St Moritz. There is also a track up here and an Engadin airport about 4K away which has a 5K road loop around it. Iv been doing most of my marathon specific training sessions around this loop as it’s perfect for marathon simulation.


My training has been going really well here and I’m hoping to show a good result next week when I race. Obviously I was really disappointed to miss the London Marathon this year due to injury, but I believe this has been a blessing in disguise as I’m now feeling fitter and fresher than I believe I would have been. On this training camp I was able to complete 6 weeks of 110+ mile weeks with my biggest being a couple of weeks ago where I ran 130 miles.
I’m now into the final 10 days before the race so it’s all about reducing the miles and starting to feel fresher now. I’m excited to get out there and race. After running 3 marathons last year I feel as if it has been ages since I raced one! Up until race day now I have one more mini session on Tuesday and the rest is pretty straight forward!


The race next week is also a team event for the marathon, it’s great that we have a strong team of British women and we can hopefully grasp a team medal. The course is 4X10k laps and I’ve heard from Steve (who did a reccie as part of an inter-railing holiday with his family!) that is is fast and flat with a few turns so I’ll let you know what I think of it next Sunday evening!

What happens after the Commonwealth Games

Posted by Steve Hobbs

Josh has been quiet since his goal race at the Commonwealth Games marathon……

It had now been 6 weeks since I had competed in the Commonwealth Games marathon where I placed 15th. Since then I took a week off from running where I just did some light exercise and stretching in order to help me recover both physically and mentally. This was followed by a week of easy running to get my body back in the routine of running. After this very easy two week period I felt healthy and recovered to resume training properly again with only four weeks until I raced the Vitality London 10k. Training in this period had gone well, I completed several track, road and hill sessions in this time, as well as building my long run back up to 16 miles. This is much lower mileage than I was doing prior to the Gold Coast but I was keen to focus more on quality and improving over the shorter distances before attacking another marathon. Having not raced for 6 weeks, you never really know how training has gone as you don’t push the same in training as you do in a race. I was excited to be back racing though and it was also great to be back in London, a city where I love racing because of the amazing crowds, excellent events and my previous experience in the capital.

As it was a bank holiday weekend, the race took place on Monday morning, starting on the Mall, and finishing in front of Buckingham Palace. It was a great route and was lined with spectators the whole way around. It’s not the fastest course I have ever raced but definitely one of my favourite. I travelled up to the race the day before by train and arrived in my hotel at around 5pm Sunday evening. I attended the race briefing where we were presented with our numbers, and were served with some good food (I had pasta, vegetables and chicken) before turning in for the night at around 10pm.

I always like to wake up early on race day so that I have plenty of time to relax, eat and hydrate before getting into race mode. I woke up at 5:30am and had my usual breakfast of rice and a coffee. I ate this in bed whilst watching Netflix on my ipad. This allowed me to relax and gave time for my food to settle before racing later. The elite athletes gathered in the hotel lobby at 8:30am to walk to the start area which was close by. I settled down in the tent and sorted all of my race gear before starting to warm up at 9:10am, 50 minutes prior to the race start. After a 2 mile jog, stretching and drills. It was time to change into my racing shoes and head onto the course to complete my pre-race strides. The athletes were then lined up prior to the start of the race.

The race started at a very slow pace, we didn’t pass through the first km until 3:05 and the slow pace continued up to the 5km mark where there was still a very large group of athletes. Mo Farah was at the front and dictating the pace of the race. Normally it wouldn’t be the case that 1 athlete has the power to do this but when you are the class of the field and so much faster than the rest of the field, it just happens like that. A surge was made at around the 6km mark which broke up the field, around 6 athletes had got away up the road and it was going to be difficult to make up ground on those guys. By the 8km mark it was clear that I wasn’t making ground on the top 6 and was now in a battle for the lower positions. In the end I was outkicked and finished in 9th position. It was a highly competitive domestic field and a great race to be a part of. I feel that with a few more weeks training I could have placed much higher however at this point in time, the race reflected my current fitness and was definitely the blowout I needed to kick-start my summer racing season.

It was great to have been able to get back into race mode after a 6 week absence and thoroughly enjoyed racing amongst a strong domestic field. I now have a quick turnaround as I am racing again this Saturday night in the Czech Republic, this time over the half marathon distance. I’m hoping that the London 10,000m will have blown away some cobwebs and I am now focussed on running well this weekend. Keep an eye out for my race-report early next week from the Ceske Budejovice Half Marathon. Thanks for reading.


Josh finished in 30 minutes and 20 seconds. Nearly a minute behind the 10k PB he set in January during his preparations for the Commonwealth Games marathon. What this should tell us is that all athletes, even elite, international athletes perform within periodized cycles – ie they cant be/ aren’t always at the top of their game AND IT’S OK! For context, Mo Farah ran 29.44 – two minutes slower than the 3 British guys (Alex Yee, Andy Vernon and Chris Thompson ran in the epic British 10000m championships at the Night of the 10000 PBs in May. Josh knows himself well, he needed a break after the Commonwealth Games experience just as we all need a mental and physical break after a big goal race. Give yourself permission to perform below your own standards, for a while…..