Thursday, 27 June 2013

How To Pick The Best Marathon To Run

Summer is finally here and after an extended period of recovery from doing both the London and Edinburgh marathon I am back out pounding the streets and trails.
I love summer. I think it’s a product of growing up in Britain – our summers are so fleeting and fragile that you value them the way people from other countries value rare gems or endangered species. But while I’m enjoying this season I already have one eye on the coming autumn, or as we runners like to call it the “2nd marathon season” (OK – maybe I’m the only runner in the world who calls it that  - the first marathon season starts around mid-March and ends at the beginning of May).  
So with that in mind I am now looking at which marathons I want to run this autumn. I’ve already left it too late to register for Berlin but apart from that the world literally is my oyster.
So I thought I would share with you all the factors I use to weigh how to choice a marathon:
1.       Where In The World? Runners are now spoilt for choice. Nearly every major city and every country  has a marathon now; from  Adelaide to Zanzibar. With the opportunity (and excuse) to go to such amazing places then pick somewhere you would be interested in going even if you weren’t running. (Just for the record Zanzibar hold a half marathon but A-Z just sounds good)

2.       How Much? The world might be my oyster but unfortunately I can’t afford to buy every pearl I see. How much does it cost to get to? How much does the marathon cost to enter? Are hotels expensive in the area? Etc? etc?  You get the picture.

3.       Why Am I Doing This? Am I trying to beat my PB? - Then I need a flat course. Am I trying to fulfil my ambition of running a marathon on every continent?  - I’ve done Europe and South America – so three’ish more to go. Or is this marathon going towards my ambition for running the Six World Marathon Majors (London done so still have Tokyo, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York to go!)

4.       Does Size Really Matter? I much prefer small marathons. When I run I am in my own world. I preferred the Whole Foods Breakfast Run for example, with less than two thousand runners and hardly any spectators, than the London marathon where I feel the spectacle is almost as important as the running itself.
And Finally:
5.       How Big Is My Ego? Although marathon running is about personal challenges, when you listen to runners chat there is often a fair bit of bragging rights. I like the kudos I get when I tell people that I’ve run the Rio marathon for example. I am in awe of some of the trail marathon runners who go off road and can tell you about the mountains they had to climb to get to the finish line!
So with those five criteria at the forefront of my mind I have picked two marathons for the year’s “2nd Marathon Season” (I don’t feel this phrase will catch on).
Drum Roll please:
Warsaw and Nairobi.
Warsaw: I’ve never been to Poland and I’m fascinated by Eastern Europe. It’s cheap to get to and accommodation isn’t too expensive. Although I have a qualifying time for the 2014 Boston marathon entry is staggered in stages and I can only enter in the last week when all the places might be taken so I need to beat my PB by 2 minutes to guarantee entry and Warsaw is very flat. It’s a big one so you can’t have everything. It scores high on the running bragging rights of “I didn’t even know Warsaw had a marathon?!?”
Nairobi:  I need an African marathon under my running shoes (Asia and America after that). I’m married to a Kenyan so accommodation is sorted. It’s a small marathon so it should be pretty intimate. And as far as bragging rights go – I’m running with Kenyans! Need I say more?
Now I’ve just got to start training properly. Only three months to go till Warsaw.
(The picture today is of me running the Cannes half-marathon which ticks all the boxes: great part of the world, cheap, got a PB, small number of participants, and as far as ego goes - did I tell you I got a PB already?)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Positive Lessons From The Boston Marathon Bombings

The Boston Marathon bombing happened just a week before I ran the London marathon. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the bombing. From every comment on twitter to the Runner's World magazine special Boston edition I have followed every twist and turn of the story. 

When I'm not running I am a bit of a news junkie (it's my job) but the way I have been almost obsessed with this story has surprised me and taught me an important lesson.

Although the marathon bombing was terrible it is far from the worst terrorist attack in recent history. More deadly bombings occur in Afghanistan and Iraq regularly. I live in Britain which is far too familiar with terrorist atrocities with a history of terrorist attacks from the IRA to more recently the 7/7 bombings. And lastly my sister-in-law works for Amnesty International and so I am made aware of the deaths of innocent people across the world all the time. 

So why the obsession with the Boston Marathon?

The answer to that question highlights the lesson the Boston Marathon has taught me.

Similarity breeds sympathy.

The Boston Marathon bombing targeted runners and I am a runner. I feel an affinity to runners. When running in the park I often greet (or at least nod at) fellow runners - I don't greet all the dog walkers I pass. I look at the Boston bombing and think how I missed out on running that actual marathon by just 3 minutes (I was 3 minutes outside the qualifying time). I see the victims and wonder if that could have been me. I read all the articles and look at all the pictures of the aftermath of the bomb and my heart bleeds.

What my interest in the Boston marathon demonstrate is that the more points of similarity one can see with other people the more sympathy one feels. I like the fact that I feel connected to a larger running community and feel sympathy for my fellow runners. But I feel uncomfortable with the possibility that I care more about victims of a terrorist attack in America just because they like to run 26.2 miles than I do with victims of terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world.

If similarity breeds sympathy does that mean difference literally begets indifference?

Do I care less for people who look different to me? Who might speak a different language from me? Will I be less charitable to immigrants than I am to someone who has lived in my street all their life?

I'm not the first person to worry about this. In 2005 Prof. Mark Levine devised an experiment where a jogger pretends to fall and needs help. He conducted the experiments in Manchester. Half the time they put the runner in a Manchester United football shirt and the other half of the time he put the runner in a Liverpool football top. The results were striking. When the runner was wearing the "local" shirt he was helped 80% of the time, while pretending to be a Liverpool supporter he was helped only 40% per cent of the time.

Now I could be depressed about this but instead there is a very large silver-lining from the grey cloud that we feel more sympathy for people who we think are more similar to ourselves.

The silver-lining is it doesn't seem to take a lot to feel a sense of similarity with someone. And once we feel that connection all the differences don't seem to matter. 

The other part of Prof. Levine's experiment was to see if the runner was helped if they were wearing just a plain white "neutral" shirt. In the experiments they were helped marginally more than when he was wearing the rival Liverpool shirt. So the Manchester United shirt was all it took for bystanders to feel a connection. Just a shirt! 

I feel a real connection to other people if they are fellow runners but the great thing is I then feel connected to them regardless of any other differences we might have. I have sympathy with the victims of the Boston bombings regardless of their race, nationality or any other characteristic that we sometimes categorise people by.

The challenge that the Boston bombing has set me is not to worry about my possible lack of sympathy I might feel with people who are different from me but to find the one point of similarity I share with people who are less fortunate than myself - and there is always at least one point of similarity. So I'm off for a run now and who knows I might even wave at a dog walker - we must have something in common (maybe).

(The picture today is of shoes left in tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. For some reason I find this far more moving than all the flower tributes I have seen)

Friday, 14 June 2013

Running and How To Win Friends & Influence People

Earlier this week I was fortunate to go on a three day work conference in Cyprus. The weather was amazing and Cyprus is an amazing place with its rich history and mixture of Greek and Turkish culture. I met some fascinating people who work in the same field I do from all over Europe and the whole experience was amazing.
As a runner though I learnt two things:
1.       Nicosia (the divided capital of Cyprus) has one of the best running routes I have ever had the pleasure of running.

I have run all over the world including Indonesia, Jamaica, France, Spain, America and even Brazil but the running in Nicosia was out of this world. Nicosia is built on the banks of the Pedieos River, if you are a runner on the south side of the “Green Line” then head to the river. On the east bank the authorities have built a beautiful path that is pure runner’s heaven that goes on for mile after glorious mile.

If you like to combine your holidays with a good run then Nicosia is the place for you.

2.       If you want to “win friends and influence people” put on a pair of running shoes.

One of the main points of these types of conferences is to network with people in your field from all over the world. I am atrocious at networking. I normally find the whole affair too contrived and artificial. You know I am talking to you because I think there might be a business opportunity for me in the future, I know you are talking to me because there might be something in it for you in the future. But we have to undergo this entire social dance which finishes in exchanging cards. I am also quite self-conscious and shy at these types of events as well, talking to strangers doesn’t come naturally to me.  

And so it was during one of these haltering networking conversations that I blurted out; “I see from your conference biography entry that you have two children and like to run – do you want to run with me?”

The next morning I was lacing up my trusty running shoes and going for a 10km run with one of the most influential people in my field in the UK. Conversation flowed naturally as we fell into step - as it always does for me when I am relaxed and running with someone – and it was the best 60 minutes of networking I can remember.

Later that day back at the conference word quickly spread about our run. Before I knew it I was organising a group run for the following morning. And so the next day I ran another 10km and networked all the way along the banks of the Pedieos River with a new group of people.

Only neither run felt like “networking” it was finding that common bond that only runners share. The funny thing is I even found it easier to talk to everyone back at the conference when I had changed out of my sweaty running gear.
So next time I have to go to a conference the first thing I will be packing is not my little business cards but my running shoes. The only thing is I am not so sure that strategy will work over a buffet lunch of some soggy sandwiches, which seems to be how most of the networking events I attend turn out.  
(The picture today is of the running path along the river in Nicosia)

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Become A Better Runner By Losing

I recently went for a run with my sister-in-law, roughly about 10km from my brother’s front door, round the park and back again. I love the run because there’s a hill about a mile in which feels nice and relaxing as you run down it at the start but really pushes you at the end. I also love running with my sister-in-law because even though we get on most of the time we hardly talk but during the course of the run we had some great conversations. I think nothing beats a nice run in getting people to talk and getting to know each other.

One of the things we discussed were the last four races I have done this year (two marathons and two half marathons - well one was a 16 miler but what’s 2.8miles between friends?).

While I wittered on boring her talking about myself and the details of each race she said something that really struck a chord:

“The most important thing is that you learn something from each race”

In that moment I realised that I had always thought that the most important thing was running a Personal Best time (a PB). If I want to be the best runner I can be, PB’s are almost just icing on the running cake, just acknowledgements of how much I’ve improved. PB’s do not make you a great runner ironically they can even stop you from reaching your best.

In my half marathons and 16 mile race I ran PB’s and I think they actually stopped me from running faster marathons later on in the year. The reason being is that I felt so pleased with myself I just kept on doing the same training, I didn’t examine how I might change my training to improve. Success stopped me from properly learning from my races.

Not getting PB’s in my last two marathons has caused me to examine all of the marathons I have done in more detail. Going through my splits I discovered that despite all my training I have not improved the time for my last 8 miles irrespective of my time for the first 16 miles (fast or slow)! Just simply putting in the long runs on the weekend has not been bringing results. I’ve gone back to all my training manuals, online running message boards and now drawn up a new training schedule. (It basically involves slowly increasing my speed during my long runs so at the end I am running at my fastest).

The idea that failure is good for you is not a new one. Kenneth Ewart Boulding (1910 - 1993) was an economist and philosopher. He is famous, amongst other things, for his quote; “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure”.

It’s a truth that even elite athletes regularly discover. Double Olympic gold medalist Mo’ Farrah became great through failure. He used to have a terrible sprint finish (when it comes to Mo’ I realise “terrible” is relative), he was losing important races at the end. As he pushed himself at the end his form would desert him with his arms flailing everywhere. His coaches realised that he lacked muscular strength and incorporated 3.5 hours of weight training into his weekly routine. The rest, as they say, is history.

So next time I don’t get the PB I have been training for I’ll try and remember Kenneth Ewart Boulding. The other lesson I have realised from all this is I should definitely go running with my sister-in-law more often.

Since writing this blog post I've been chatting to the Editor of one of my favourite Radio4 programmes "More Or Less" presented by Tim Harford. Tim Harford's book "Adapt" expands on the idea of success through failure of which I am sure I owe a subconscious debt to in writing this post - Thanks Tim!

(The picture today is of my sister-in-law and me after our run)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Run! Don't Think!!

I sometimes wonder if when it comes to running ignorance may well have been bliss.

A year ago I was preparing for my first marathon in Rio. I had no idea how hard it was going to be and so I had no idea what pace to run at.

In my training I didn’t really know if I was training hard or not. Whether I was going fast or slow. I knew I was putting in the miles as I'd found a beginner’s marathon training schedule  and it told me how many miles I had to run to be able to run 26.2 miles but it was completely agnostic about speed.

In Rio as I lined up for the marathon I started talking to the runner next to me and he asked me what time I was aiming for. I looked at him rather embarrassedly and told him I had no idea, I felt as if I was admitting that I really didn’t know what I was doing and almost had no place being there.

Not only did I not know my potential I also had no idea what a “good time” for a marathon was. 

And so when it came to the race I just ran.

In the end I completed the Rio marathon in 3 hours 18 minutes and I’ve subsequently found out it’s a pretty good time for a first marathon for someone the wrong side of 40. But I think I was able to achieve this because I was ignorant. In the last two miles when my body was aching I had no idea if I was making a good time or not, I just knew I had to push my body as hard as it could go.  

Since my first marathon I have run three more marathons and I’ve now consciously been aiming to run the marathon in under 3 hours ten minutes. I’ve come close running 3 hours 11 minutes but never under my goal.  

I now think the 3 hours 10 minute goal might be a mental block. If I'd known that 3 hours 20 minutes was a good marathon time before the Rio marathon would I have been able to run a sub 3 hour twenty marathon at first attempt?

People have sometimes called this the 'Bannister Effect'? Before 6 May 1954, it was thought 'impossible' to run a mile under four minutes. But Roger Bannister beat the 4 minute mile by 6 tenths of a second - he defied people's perceptions of the impossible.  In many ways the 4 minute mile was less a physical barrier and more a psychological one. The following year after Roger Bannister broke the psychological barrier 37 more runners broke the four-minute mile, and in the 12 months after that, another 300 did it. Today even school boys have broken the 4 minute barrier.

Running blogs and trainers often say that you should sometimes leave your watch at home when training and even racing. Our mental awareness, our perception of what we think is good, great or even impossible shapes our physical abilities. Roger Bannister reshaped the mental perceptions of at least 37 runners the year after his historic race which transformed their physical reality.

I am beginning to obsess over three hours ten minutes.

I just hope it does not become my "Bannister Effect".

Instead I think I should return to the way I was before the Rio marathon and realise that ignorance might be my best strategy to be the best runner I can become.

Run! Don't Think!!

(The picture today is of a kid I saw running as fast as he could on a beach in Brazil - I doubt he was suffering from the Bannister Effect)