Monday, 27 May 2013

Marathon Running, Time and the Small Matter of the Meaning of Life

On Sunday I ran the Edinburgh Marathon. It was my fourth marathon in less than a year and came just five weeks after the last marathon I ran - the London Marathon.

In truth I ran it because I was disappointed with the way I had run the London Marathon. In the London Marathon I had run far too fast at the beginning and had faded at the end. As one friend put it; “I went off like a hare and finished like a tortoise”. My thinking behind registering for the Edinburgh marathon just a month later was if you fall off a horse the best thing you can do is get back on it. I knew I could run far faster than I had run the London marathon and all I needed was another opportunity to prove it. Well that was the idea at least.

I ran a far more intelligent race at Edinburgh starting slowly and increasing my speed as I went. But I still slowed down over the last eight miles and my final time was even slower than my London marathon by 40 seconds.

Time gives marathon running meaning.

I finished the Edinburgh marathon in 3 hours, 14 minutes and 31 seconds. But it is the 40 seconds which make the difference between this being a worse marathon than the previous one. It is 3 minutes and 35 seconds which stopped it being my best marathon ever and I had four minutes of solace for it not being my worst ever marathon time.

Regardless how good you are as a runner; whether it is your first marathon or you are an elite Kenyan marathon athlete; time counts. The first time novice runner sometimes just say it’s just about finishing the marathon but that is not true. Almost anybody can complete 26.2 miles but not everyone can complete it in eight hours (normally the cut off time for most modern marathon races to be completed). Implicit in the novice’s idea of “just wanting to finish the marathon” is a sense of time.

But as well as looking at the seconds, minutes and hours maybe I should be looking at the weeks and years.

It was foolhardy to think I could run a personal best (PB) just five weeks after running a really tough marathon in London which really took it out of my body. But at 42 years old I don’t know how many PB’s I have left in me which is why I was desperate to run again, also at 42 my body also takes a longer time to recover. Like it or not marathon running reminds me that I am human and like all living things subject to decay and death - regardless how much I am often in denial about this.

The sense of meaning that time gives the marathon just brings into sharp focus how time gives all life meaning.

From my age in decades to the seconds I am trying to shave off my best marathon time. I think about my life in important moments that are too small to be captured even by seconds and years that just seem to slip through my fingers and I don’t even know where they went.

The Edinburgh marathon taught me an important lesson.

After the London marathon I thought I could just effortlessly erase my London marathon experience and supplant it with a faster better Edinburgh marathon time and experience. Instead I realise that marathons are such large events in anybody’s life and on anybody’s body that you can’t just pretend they didn’t happen.

Important events in our lives are the real measurement of time in our lives.

Marathon running is great because they take time and we are forced to live with their consequences for months and sometimes years - whether we like it or not.

I want to get a faster a better PB but what will make that PB amazing when I finally get it is that it took me time to achieve.

(The picture today is of my four marathon medals)

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Pain And Pleasure of Running

Running is different from almost any other sport I can think of.

It is the only sport that I can hate but gives me the most pleasure.

Unlike other popular sports like football or basketball or cricket there are times in every runner's life when we have to almost force ourselves to do do our sport. At least once a month I will know I have to go for a run and it is the last thing I want to do. I will go through periods when I will not like running but will push myself to go out and run. I don't think people who do other sports push themselves to do the sport they profess to love. I hasten to add I'm not talking about the 1% of elite athletes - I'm talking about the 99% of us who supposedly do sport for "fun".

I don't think there are any other sports where you could feasibly ask friends, family and colleagues for money to do the sport you supposedly enjoy. I feel no shame asking people to sponsor me to run a marathon, if someone asked me to sponsor them to play a game of football or shoot some hoops I would think they were mad!

It's an acknowledgement from our friends that distance running is tough, that often it isn't fun and it is a real challenge. It's an endeavour worthy of giving money to charity for.  

There is a section on the website labelled "Motivation". As the name suggests it is there to try and motivate people to run when they would prefer not to go out for a run. Runner's World is possibly the largest, most popular running magazine and website in the world and I would assume that they wouldn't have this section unless it was really needed by  it's readers. It's readers are by definition people who have voluntarily taken up running and yet we still need help to fight the urge to give up.

In this way I think running exposes one of the great secrets of life: 

The greatest joy is often the sum of of great pain.

I love running precisely because I don't get pleasure from every step I take. But each painful step I take adds up to the greatest joy I can experience. If life was a mathematical equation two negatives really do add up to a positive, or in the case of a marathon several thousand negatives add up to one amazing positive.

It is one of life's strangest contradictions; Only pursuing pleasure makes our lives less pleasurable.

Avoiding hard work and pain lessens the joy that life gives us, yet we seem programmed to avoid pain wherever and whenever possible. Despite the popular hymn "comfort" may be the antithesis of "joy"!

There will still be mornings when I won't be able to push myself to out of bed to run the 10k I know my training schedule says I should run and I will enjoy the comfort of my warm duvet. There will definitely be days when I won't be able to stop myself eating the junk food I know I should avoid.

But what running has taught me is that comfort rarely brings joy and in the long run, (pun intended), only hard work and achievement bring ultimate pleasure.

(The picture today is of me in pain directly after I finished the London marathon)

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Love And Running

I feel as if I am falling out of love with running.
It has been a month since I ran the London marathon and I didn’t really enjoy myself running that marathon. Despite training really hard I didn’t run a PB let alone the goal I had set myself of a sub three hour marathon. In training I don’t feel the joy of just letting my body stretch out and enjoy it. I used to love training with my wife – two hour runs of uninterrupted time together; no phone calls, no social media, no emails, no TV - just the two of us running together sometimes talking sometimes enjoying silence that only two runners or two people in love can. But as I've got more serious about my running we now train separately.
I remember when I first started running I read somewhere that it is better to not run so hard and enjoy it so you return the following day, as opposed to training as hard as you can, not enjoying the experience, and not coming back the next day. Good training and enjoyment are intrinsically linked.
My focus in training for the London marathon ignored the importance of pleasure. Getting faster and better was all that counted. Pleasure was no longer part of the equation. The PB and the finish time was the only thing that mattered. The ends justified the means. My running enjoyment was sacrificed on the altar of a sub three hour marathon.
You can’t keep doing what you don’t like. The ends not only do not justify the means (as the saying goes). If you do not enjoy the means you won’t even reach “the ends”. I did not achieve my sub three hour marathon and I’m not enjoying my running. I think the same is true for so many things in life. In work when I do something purely to achieve an end result I not only don't enjoy the process invariably I don't achieve the end goal.
I now realise that running 10 minute miles with my wife in training makes me a better runner than running seven minute miles by myself. Finishing a run with a smile is better than finishing my training thinking I am about to die (and often thinking death would be a small mercy).
This Sunday I am going to try and fall back in love with running. I am going to run the Edinburgh marathon. It is far too early since the London marathon to run a PB but it’s not too early to just run for fun. On Sunday I will soak up the atmosphere and first and foremost fall in love.
(The picture today is of possibly one of the races I enjoyed myself the most - the 16 mile Whole Foods Breakfast Run. Because 16 miles isn't a 'proper' distance, unlike a marathon, half marathon or 10k, I just ran for the love of it).