Tuesday, 25 March 2014
It was my birthday a few days ago.
In the last ten years my birthdays seem to fall into a regular pattern:
A week or two of anticipation, a day of celebration, followed by a fortnight of introspection.
I am currently in the introspection phase.
I am coping with this introspection by running more and once again returning to the fundamental question of “why do I run?”. I find I can ask that question a million times and each time come up with a different answer. Every time the different answer helps illuminate the current existential dilemma I am grappling with.
At the ripe (possibly over-ripe) age of 43 I am definitely an adult. By almost any definition I am in fact middle-aged. And yet I do not feel middle aged and sometimes I don’t even feel like an adult. I have a relatively high powered job – a job with ‘grown-up responsibilities’ that only an adult could do. And yet still the same I do not feel like an adult.
There are times I embrace adulthood and feel I am a fully paid up member to the mature club while other times I feel I am a 20 something impostor dressing up in a 40 something’s body.
In my eyes my father is an adult, and to me always has been. The same for my mother. When I was at school my teachers were adults. A lot of my older colleagues I think of as adults and some of the younger ones as well.
I am inconsistent with my definition of the term. I know a ‘grown up’ when I speak to one but not every 30 something or 40 something seems to be a grown up (even some people in their 50′s seem to miss the mark)
So how does the fundamental question of “Why do I run?” help me make sense of these shifting sands of adulthood and my internal contradictions?
I now think that one of the main reasons that I run is that it connects me with my physical body. In so much of my daily life I do not think about my physical body unless something is wrong with it (an illness or ache and pain) and if I don’t run I do never push my body to its limits.
Running gives me a vitality and a sense of power that I love and cherish. A physical sense of power I used to feel effortlessly when I was a teenage and in my twenties which I now have to work at.
I think it is this sense of power that holds the key to my self-infantilisation.
In so many aspects of modern life youth seems to be honored to the point of deification. Youth is power.
When my father was young (he was born in the late 1930′s) adulthood was power. Youth was something to pass through to get to power, influence and respect. Now so many aspects of adulthood just seem to hold out the prospect of irrelevance.
Physically my running gives me power and is one of the reasons I love doing it. The fear is giving up running would mean surrendering to the inevitable physical forces of aging and decay. In the same way fully embracing adulthood could be seen as surrendering my youth. A youth that my colleagues and peers value so highly.
But if running gives me a sense of power and it is a lose of power that I fear with age and irrelevance then my running also gives me comfort. Running possibly shows me the way forward as I inevitably continue to age.
I define myself as a runner, it is an intrinsic part of my identity, and yet I only started running seriously a few years ago.
Running has exposed a new world to me and aspects to my character that I never knew existed before. I am definitely an adult runner – the one time I have received an award for distance running it was in the over 40′s category. In many ways I am happier to embrace adulthood in my running than almost any other aspect of my life.
I believe that the sense of power I get from running is not about clinging on to a sense of youthfulness beyond its sell by date. Running for me is about pushing boundaries and bringing new experiences into my life. That sense of ‘newness’ can sometimes be confused with youth. As youth is when everything is new and we can’t help but push boundaries.
But running has taught me that I can do that at any age. If I can embrace the new I can equally embrace adulthood. It is the new which is powerful and hopefully age will give me wisdom of how best to harness it.
You know what I think I might just be through the introspection phase of my birthday this year!
(The picture today is of my “best for age” acceptance form for the London marathon – now I couldn’t do that if I was still in my twenties)
Monday, 24 February 2014
A New Year and a new trend to follow. Newspapers and popular science publications have recently been waxing lyrical about the "evils of sugar"
I have been officially “sugar free” since the 1st January 2014.
That means no refined sugar in my food, no “sweet” foods made up of simple carbohydrates – like honey or maple syrup and drastically reducing my fruit intake (I miss mangoes the most) – oh and definitely no fruit juices!
There are two questions I guess I need to answer in this running blog:
1. Is it difficult?
2. How is it affecting my running?
GOING COLD TURKEY
First of all I find it incredibly hard to do. Giving up sugar has been one of the most difficult challenges I have ever given myself and continues to be difficult. I have a sweet tooth and I love chocolate. Confectionary is both a comfort when I’m stressed and it gives me energy when I’m at work.
The first problem is the energy level one. As far back as I can remember I have survived on sugar going from one energy hit to another through the day. Some of them have been “healthier” hits of fruit while others have been donuts and chocolate bars. But sugar – in one form or another has been my crutch. And so when I gave up sugar I found my energy levels crashing all the time and nothing to pick me up. At this point I should also say I have limited myself to one coffee in the morning as I quickly realised I would just be able to get through the sugar deficit by replacing it with a caffeine overload. (Replacing one addiction for another is not the answer)
It took my body just over a week to adjust. I was definitely not my best at work and at the end of each day I would just collapse and sleep. I would recommend anyone doing this should make sure they have a work period that isn’t too demanding. My energy levels are now great throughout the day.
While the physical need for sugar has gone the craving is as strong as ever (if not more so). I look longingly at chocolate and would love a slice of cake. I eat natural peanut butter to get through some of my weaker moments. Knowing my weaknesses I have also consciously given up bread, as a marathon runner I need my complex carbohydrates – oats, brown rice, wholemeal pasta – but if I allowed myself bread I know I would just get all the sugar I’m missing from bread.
DOES IT MAKE YOU A BETTER RUNNER?
But is it worth it I hear all the runners ask? Does it make you a better and faster runner?
The answer is a resounding “yes”.
First of all the weight has just dropped off. I have lost 3kg (6.6lbs in American money) in just over six weeks and I started off as a relatively athletic guy (188cm 76kg). I’m lighter on my feet and I can feel that lightness when I run.
More importantly on my longer runs I used to fuel them on a combination of caffeine and sugar. I would have an espresso twenty minutes before a run and a handful of jelly babies just before I set off (popping jelly babies along the way). This would be great for the first 10k as I headed off on a sugar caffeine high and popping gels or candy along the way. After 10k my energy levels would eventually crash as my body was used to receiving a sugar hit every time my body was under stress in normal life.
Now I’m teaching my body to function without constant sugar hits it isn’t expecting one after an hour and my longer runs have been a lot better. To be honest I won’t really know until I do my next marathon but I’m feeling stronger in my training runs.
WHY AM I WRITING THIS?
I try not to write about training and the actual mechanics of running too much in this blog and so that begs the question why I am breaking my rule and writing about diet, exercise and how to be a better runner. The fact is as we head into the cold dog days of winter that are better known as February my resolve is weakening. I can feel my sugar cravings getting stronger and the novelty of being sugar free is wearing thin just as the demands and stresses of work are growing. A combination that would usually have me reaching for the sugary treats. By writing this blog post I am hoping that the peer pressure, and associated shame if I renage on my very public declaration of what I am doing will keep me on the striaght and narrow.
Being the best runner I can be is a challenge. It is a challenge I rise to four to five times a week when I lace up my running shoes Over the last month I’ve discovered to be a good runner my diet is also a challenge. What I put in my stomach can matter just as much as the miles I clock up.
(The picture today is of a giant 1lb Chocolate Reese's Peanut Butter Cup it has over 3,000 calories - or to put it another way the same amount of energy of running an entire marathon!)
Friday, 14 February 2014
Happy Valentine’s to every runner out there today on this day of love.
OK I know all the arguments that Valentines Day is just a capitalist invention to commodify one of the most precious emotions we experience. But considering we live in a capitalist society and every other aspect of my life seems to be for sale I will ignore those arguments and continue this blog post in earnest. (And for the cynics amongst you I would recommend reading this blog post - after mine of course!)
I thought on this ‘special’ day I would write a non-cynical ode to my two loves; my beautiful wife and running.
I have always run. At school I was on the athletics team and during the summer term I would run the glamour events of 100m and 200m - and love it. During the winter I would represent the school at regional cross country races and hate every muddy minute of it. From the age of about 15 I left competitive running behind me but it was still the best exercise I knew and would regularly go for runs around the local park. I thought they were ‘long runs’ but looking back on it they were never longer than 6 - 8km.
I enjoyed running but I definitely wouldn’t describe my relationship with running as one of “love”, it was something I did occasionally like going to the gym or shooting hoops. The “love” would come when I met my wife to be - Hannah. Someone who I fell in love with almost instantly (and is possibly the only time that has happened in my life).
There are few activities that I do that I don’t invite my wife to join me in. That doesn’t mean we do everything together but the invitation is always there (she tried watching Battlestar Galactica and gave up midway through the second episode - I proceeded to watch the next seven seasons by myself). And so it was only natural that when I went for runs I invited her to join me.
I quickly discovered that running provided the ideal opportunity for quality time with my wife.
Running is a rare opportunity when it is just the two of us. Nearly all other times in our lives it is at least ‘the two of us plus 1’. That ‘plus one’ can be a friend or family member. But the ‘plus one’ could equally be the television, cooking, a newspaper or the dreaded iphone. Running is quite literally the only time when we are focused solely on each other.
My love affair with running really started at this point as it gave me exclusive quality time with my wife. Running also enabled my relationship with my wife to grow even deeper as we listened to each other with no distractions for at least an hour every week.
I would have been happy just gently running with Hannah for years to come but she was the one to suggest that we enter a marathon. I hadn’t raced since I was in school and the thought had never occured to me. The long hours of training meant we spent more time together and it also gave us a goal to focus on. A challenge and the eventual triumph as we both completed the Rio Marathon two years ago only served to bring us even closer together.
I often wonder what would have happened if Hannah hadn’t suggested we do the marathon. I think we would have continued running - but intermittently. Instead crossing that finish line in Rio cemented my love for running.
I now run five times a week (sometimes six) and if men are supposedly meant to think about sex 34 times a day - that’s a ‘scientific fact’ - then I think about running just as much. On good days my wife plays a part in all those thoughts - well maybe not all the running thoughts but I did say I had two loves at the start.
Today I will go for my run alone (as my wife is abroad for work) but hopefully she will read this and go for a run as well. Running on separate continents divided by space and time I can’t think of a better way to share our love on this Valentines day.
(The picture today is of my wife and I sharing a moment of jubilation after we finished the Rio Marathon.)
Monday, 10 February 2014
Running a marathon is painful.
With enough training - if you are fit enough - jogging a marathon doesn’t have to be painful.
Walking 26.2 miles, if you have the time, doesn’t have to be too arduous at all.
But “running” a marathon is painful, pushing yourself to complete it as quickly as you can will hurt. I’ve run six marathons and at the end of each one I find myself quoting Apollo Creed at the end of the first Rocky film “There ain’t gonna be no rematch”. I always think I will never be able to endure that kind of pain again, nor want to!
But recently I discovered it is how we deal with pain that makes the difference between great Olympic endurance athletes and normal civilians like you and me.
In a classic 1981 British Medical Journal study they discovered three important facts that I think teach us something relevant not just for marathon running but in all walks of life.
Fact 1: Pain Threshold of elite athletes is the same as recreational athletes and is even the same as most non-athletes. That means the point you start to “feel pain” is the same for all of us.
Fact 2. Pain Endurance is vastly different for athletes compared to recreational athletes, who in turn are vastly different than ordinary people. This means elite athletes can endure more pain for longer. They are still feeling the pain the same way mere mortals but they can take it for more time.
Fact 3. Pain Endurance Changes Over Time. At the start of a season the amount of pain an elite athlete can endure when s/he hasn’t been training is considerably less than s/he can endure at the height of the season when they are at their best.
I find the first two facts fascinating. It means that it is not the ability not to feel pain that achieves greatness but the ability to suffer for longer. In the Rocky film, Rocky and Apollo Creed felt pain from the first time they were punched, it was the ability to keep on going punch after punch that made the fictional boxers amazing.
But it is the third fact that I take the most inspiration from. We are all able to increase the amount of pain we can withstand with training. We can all achieve greatness, or at least be better than we are today.
I think this is true not just in running marathons, fictional boxing matches and all endurance events, but in everything we do.
Rarely are the best people at my work the cleverest ones, or the ones with the best ideas. The best people are the ones who can endure more. The ones who can go longer. The ones who when you give them the impossible marathon-esq task just put it on their shoulders and keep on going.
So next time I am out running or doing a job that I think is just too big and want to give up I’ll try and remember the marathon runners and the people t work I admire the most. They too would be suffering the same as me but all I’ve got to do is endure.
(The picture today is of Dorando Pietri - in pain - who famously collapsed in the last 400 meters of the 1908 Olympics Marathon and created one of the most iconic moments in modern marathon history)
Monday, 3 February 2014
The other day I was introduced to a veteran runner. Our initial conversation was about running but pretty soon it progressed to other aspects of our lives. The veteran runner visits people with dementia and talks to them for two hours. He told me they are often in care homes and receive no visitors and his visit may be the only conversation they have all week outside of professional nurses and care workers giving them instructions.
He then told me two things about his visits that I think might hold the answer as to what I am trying to achieve with my running. First of all the conversations with the people suffering with dementia often “go nowhere” they are full of non-sequesters, random thoughts and streams of consciousness. Second, while the conversations may last up to two hours, invariably fifteen minutes after the conversation has ended the person will not even remember they happened.
By the way we usually measure achievement my fellow runner’s visits and conversations do not seem to achieve anything; a conversation that often makes no sense that is almost instantly forgotten. He told me this “lack” of achievement is possibly the hardest aspect of his work.
But what he has grown to realise is that for two hours in the week the dementia sufferer is connecting to another person and feels engaged in the world. If he didn’t visit them they would either be sat in front of a TV or possibly even in their beds starring at the ceiling trapped in their own minds.
I’m not sure if my conversation with the veteran runner “achieved” anything but it did make me think.
As a runner least once a month I ask myself some form of the the following questions:
“What’s the point or my running?”
“Why do I subject myself to the ordeal of running?”
“Why do I regularly get up at 6am on a weekend and run for two to three hours?”
“Why do I regularly forego some of the more fun aspects of life?”
“Why am I punishing myself?”
At the root of these questions is one simple question - What on earth am I trying to achieve?
I am in my forties, I’m reasonably good but I will never be a great runner. I will never be an Olympian. I doubt I will even ever win a race for my age range. Running will never bring me a source of income. It will not help my career in anyway. If I was doing it for health benefits I could reap all the same benefits by running half the amount I do. And finally if I was trying to lose weight I suspect I should concentrate a little more on my diet and a lot less on my split times.
Every other activity I undertake with this level of intensity and commitment I have a clear goal in mind to somehow better my life. So what exactly am I trying to achieve by running all the time?
The fact is at its best running is like the conversations my veteran running friend has with the dementia patients. My best runs are not trying to achieve anything. My best runs are not when I am trying to achieve a certain time or working towards an upcoming race. My best runs are when I am simply running to run.
The achievement is the run itself and when the run is done the achievement and goal is over. Just how the dementia conversation’s value is in the act of the conversation itself and when the conversation is over the achievement is over.
All too often the achievements I am pursuing are like the illusionary pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that I am constantly chasing but will never reach.
What running and my veteran running friend’s experience teaches me is often the achievements, purpose and happiness we seek are with us right now if only we learn to live more in the moment.
Monday, 27 January 2014
Quality versus quantity. Which do you choose?
In almost every walk of modern life the sophisticated, intelligent answer is always "quality".
I often sit through work meetings where people wheel out trite phrase such as "we should focus on the quality not the quantity" as if they have said something new and profound. And everyone in the meeting nods knowingly.
Who aspires to be the "bargain basement" piling them high and flogging them cheap? Everyone wants to be that "quality" product that everyone else admires, wants to be and buy.
My recent marathon training has caused me to question this accepted wisdom and I'm starting to think it's all about quantity.
On Saturday I ran 30km, on Friday I ran a fast timed 5km and the day before that I ran a half marathon in training. According to the running schedule I downloaded from a sports website I am meant to run between 70 and 80 kilometres every week between now and my marathon in April, some weeks I'm even meant to run over 90 kilometres. Mo Farah is famously meant to run 120 miles a week when in training.
A large part of distance running training is all about quantity.
Far from quality being in opposition to quantity, the latter is not achievable without the former. Quantity leads to quality. The more you do anything the better you become and the more likely you will be able to achieve the best quality.
Now I know what you're thinking; there's a difference between "training quantity" and "performance quality".
In my experience the more half marathons I run in training as close to race conditions as possible the better my marathon times when I finally race for real. Also when I think about other examples in life quality seems to be predicated on quantity. Two of the greatest jazz musicians that ever lived; John Coltrane and Miles Davis were prolific in their output often producing several albums a year. I doubt they would have been able to create the masterpieces they created if they hadn't constantly been performing, recording and honing their skills. (The Spice Girls only ever recorded three albums - a cheap shot I know but I doubt anyone will be listening to 2 become 1 in forty years time the way they listen to Coltrane's Love Supreme today).
(The picture today is of just a few of John Coltrane's albums a clear example where quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive)