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Tag: Goals

Berlin Marathon Race Recap

2 days on from the Berlin Marathon 2021 and I can still barely walk. It’s been a long time since a race has taken such a toll and it underlines how much I put my body through on Sunday. I’m mentally drained too. Never has a race build up been so elongated and fraught with difficulties.

I am absolutely delighted that I was able to record nearly a 5 minute PB of 2:49:07 but the time alone does not tell half the story. Yes it will be the first thing (maybe the only thing) people will ask about it but it is not the time that I was most proud of.

I had told a few people I was aiming for 2:45 and that was still the case on the morning of the race. If I’d been told before I would run 2:49 I think I would have been disappointed. My previous best was set 2 and a half years ago and my training had been so much better coming into this race. I don’t think 2:45 was an unrealistic aim.

But I could also see that conditions were not ideal. The sun was out with no cloud cover and forecasts of up to 25 degrees which for a northern lad is tropical. I allowed myself an ‘easy’ first mile to test the water. I could already tell it was going to be a struggle but I tried to notch the pace up a little over the next few miles.

I passed through the 5k marker a bit down on pace and I knew I’d have to pick it up again to get on track for 2:45. The second 5k was nearly in the right ballpark but I was already starting to struggle getting enough water from the cups out on the course which was concerning.

In London and Dublin water came in bottles which is much easier. It doesn’t spill and it’s easy to carry so you don’t have to down it in one go. The cups at Berlin were not full but trying to grab one at pace still meant spilling half of it. Then when you did come to drink, half of it would run down your face rather than into your mouth.

The water issue was making fuelling difficult too. My plan was always to take my fuel just before a water station so that I could wash the gel or bar down after. But eating with a dry mouth was not easy.

I got the first bar down at mile 4 but when it came to my second bar around mile 12 it left me retching and in real difficulty. I had to chuck it knowing that at that moment, lack of water was more of a problem than lack of fuel.

Soon after that I decided that if I didn’t take action now, the race was going to turn into a nightmare. I stopped at the next water station to make sure I got a full cup of water down. It turned out to be a good plan with one problem; downing a cup of water gave me a stitch soon after.

I went through halfway at 1:23:37 and I knew there was no way I’d run the 2 minute negative split required for 2:45. I quickly readjusted to try and run the remainder at 2:50 pace and also to try and manage the stitch which did go after a couple of miles.

I stopped again at the water station around mile 15, this time for a bit longer to try and avoid the stitch. Yes it took another 15/20s out of my time but I knew I needed to try and do everything to get back on track.

The next gel around 16 went down better and I was able to start taking water again on the move so that by the time I was approaching the 30km mark (18.5 miles) I felt like I was starting to pick up again. Despite not knowing the course in depth, I knew it turned back into the centre around 30km which was a real psychological boost too.

In reality, my pace wasn’t picking up but it wasn’t declining much either and I started to realise that I was going past other people frequently. To be struggling at mile 12 in a marathon is frankly alarming and I felt like I must be the only person in difficulty. By mile 19 I knew that I was now faring much better than many people around me.

That’s not to say it suddenly became easy but I’d worked my way through a really rough patch by focusing on each 5km marker and trying to put out each fire as it arose. I finally felt like I was running ‘in the zone’ where I was able to maintain a decent pace without any major issues.

The major issues came (literally) screaming back in the last 5km though this time in the form of cramp. It has been a nemesis of mine in marathons before but I’ve always managed to stave it off. It’s usually in my calves but this time it seemed to be everywhere.

I kept trying to focus on good form knowing that trying to compensate for the cramp in one place may set something off elsewhere. I hadn’t been obsessing over my splits too much as I knew that they had been close enough to the right pace but I was also aware that my watch was measuring long.

This usually happens in every marathon. The course has a blue line round which is the shortest line to take and it must be at least a marathon distance. You can never stick fully to this line with other people and water stations to contend with so you are always going to run a little long.

But more than this, GPS is not 100% accurate especially when you run past tall buildings. It becomes a dot to dot of slightly inaccurate position readings. On a very twisty course this can result in a short reading as it may cut off a corner you’ve had to run round.

In big city marathons where you run lots of long straight streets, there’s far more chance of it measuring long because the GPS tracks you slightly off the straight road and will record curves and zig zags that aren’t really there.

You really have no idea what is going on during the marathon but you can see the inaccuracy afterwards. Usually you can see how far out your watch is by comparing it with the mile markers but I had my watch in miles and the markers were in km so I hadn’t really been paying attention.

The result was that I got lured into thinking I had more in the bag to beat 2:50 than I really had in reality. I was ticking off the miles on my watch at around the right pace but the km markers weren’t coming as soon as they should. I knew I had to keep the effort level high to make it – I couldn’t ease off.

There is a long straight section into 40km at which point it zigzags back towards the finish just beyond the Brandenburg gate. Some people were walking or stopped altogether. Having collapsed before at mile 25 in a marathon, I was determined not to stop no matter how much I wanted to. Plenty of time for that at the finish line.

If the section to 40km seemed to go on forever then the last straight down to the Brandenburg gate and beyond was worse. I’m glad I read that the end wasn’t at the gate because it’s a good bit past it and I was ready for it, not that it made it much easier.

I know some people get emotional at this point but I was having difficulty just concentrating holding my running form together. I had been more in awe before the start of the race but now just needed to focus on getting to the end.

Making sure I smiled for the cameras (I’d no doubt been grimacing most of the way round), I crossed the line and immediately the cramp consumed my legs and feet. I could barely stand let alone walk. Someone kindly held me up whilst an electrolyte drink was brought my way.

Lots of thoughts flooded into my head having tried to block out most of it during the race. I knew I couldn’t have done more. I didn’t hit the main target I’d set but in a way I’d achieved more than just a time in the way I’d battled through.

I thought about the sacrifices Louise and the boys had made back home to allow me to get here at all. I thought about the inspiration of my Mum who introduced me to running and would have been 67 this week. I thought back to the tough training runs and weeks I had been through that had tested my mental resolve especially in the 6 weeks before.

All these things contributed to my ability to deal with the situation but I still wondered why I put myself through it. I think on reflection, it is the sense of achievement at being able to overcome a difficult challenge. It’s about testing myself and coming out the other side of it.

And it’s a truly personal experience. At the end of the day, others will applaud your achievements but there is no real context to place them in. Everyone has a different potential, different circumstances and different problems to overcome.

Time for reflection and evaluation is important too. A lot of sacrifice can go into running a marathon. Was it worth it? Which parts were enjoyable? Which were not? What would I do the same again? What could be changed next time?

I know there are certain things I’m not keen to repeat but it’s still too early to say what my next challenge will be. The dust has to settle a bit more, I need to enjoy some things outside of running for a little while. But I’ve definitely learned and reinforced a few things:

  1. Your ‘why’ has to be strong enough otherwise you will choose not to suffer when it hurts the most.
  2. You have to be able to adapt your target / expectations depending on the conditions that you get.
  3. Having a variety of different targets can help you do this. I had 2:45 as a target but also 2:50, a PB (2:53:50), 2:55, 3:00 and simply just finishing to get my second major.
  4. Being able to problem solve on the move is key to running a good time. A marathon is rarely plain sailing so what strategies do you have when things go wrong?
  5. Breaking down a marathon into smaller chunks and focusing on each one in turn will make it easier to get through the whole thing. By focusing on each 5km rather than the fact I had 14 miles left when it was going wrong, I was able to turn the race round.
  6. Work in the units of the race in your training and on the day. Tracking kms on my watch would have been easier and would have shown me how far off my GPS was.
  7. Realise that most people are having a tough time of it, not just you. A marathon is not easy.
  8. Try and take it all in and enjoy it. The crowds at Berlin were fantastic, especially the bands. I wasn’t in a good place to take it in but I really tried at points and I did have a smile on my face when I passed by the bands or someone shouted out my name. 
  9. Share in the success and pain of your fellow runners. Running can be lonely at times and although everyone’s experience of a race is different, you’ll be able to reminisce and reflect on many of the same things.
  10. Be thankful to the people that have made sacrifices or helped you to get you where you are. Thank you @loulou.ladd and the family, @jm_run_coaching for the extra resolve you’ve managed to instill in me and everyone supporting me at @malluskharriers and @therunningrules.

I hope everyone running Belfast and London this weekend has a great race. You’ve put all the training, planning and prep in and now it’s all about executing the race!

When will you run your best marathon?

Have you fully committed to finding out what your potential is?

I’m 38 this month. Over the hill. Past it. Yet before I’m 40 I want to try and beat my 20 year old self by an hour in the marathon. Back then I was over the moon with my first marathon time of 3:41 and indeed for many years I was content that I could hang up my running shoes at any time with a solid marathon time to my name.

The numbers are arbitrary. Everyone is different. My 3:41 might be someone else’s 5:41. But having since run much faster than that I now know that I was scratching the surface of what was possible for me in that first marathon.

So how can a nearly 40 year old run so much faster than a 20 year old?

Steady vs sporadic commitment

I had always viewed the marathon as the culmination of 16 weeks of training. I’d book in a race then ‘commit’ to the training for the 16 weeks prior to the race. This is ‘sporadic commitment’. It assumes that each marathon and training block is a discrete period of time unrelated to anything else in your life.

The stop start nature of this way of thinking about training (“I’m either training for a marathon or I’m not”) made it harder to adhere to plans. I didn’t have a structure around my training the rest of the time so it felt unnatural during marathon training.

My body wasn’t used to it either and adding a lot of extra training stress without properly offsetting that with good nutrition meant I got colds as my immunity was lowered. I’d miss entire weeks of marathon training which, although is sometimes unavoidable, was hardly ideal.

Contrast that with the last 12 months where I haven’t been training for anything in particular but my training has been more structured and consistent than ever. I started viewing training as something that is a natural part of my life, not something that needs to be turned on or off.

This is ‘steady commitment’ and it can build over time if you allow it. At the start, you may not be able to commit to as much training as you think you need to get to where you want to be. But training accumulates over time so even committing to what you can now will help you in the long run.

Physical vs mental ability

We mostly think of ageing as a negative trait but as we get older we improve in many ways. When I ran my first marathon, I had youth on my side. I was also relatively fearless of the marathon. I didn’t know how hard it would be so I just gave it a shot.

But I now have much more experience of training and racing. I now know when and why things will get tough and how I can get through those situations.

You also learn over time. Your body might not be as young as it was but you learn to manage it better. You realise what you really want to focus on and learn the training techniques, recovery strategies and nutritional strategies to get you there

Your first marathon should not be your fastest. Unless it is your only marathon. You may not beat this time every time but with every marathon you build up more experience of things that went well and things that didn’t.

In every training block you should find new things to work on and build on your previous experiences. You should improve mentally over time.

There is one caveat to this: I said I wasn’t fearless when I was young. I was also not respectful of the distance and the challenge of a marathon. My next two attempts both ended pretty disastrously. I thought about quitting.

This is known as the dip and if you find yourself here you have to work your way out and not quit. If you find a way through, those bad experiences will help improve your future performances. I don’t regret those efforts. I wouldn’t have the bank of experience I have now if everything had always gone swimmingly.

You don’t know what’s round the corner

It’s easy to put things off. We don’t have time right now. Races aren’t on so what’s the point?

Yes there are some big life situations that might mean now is not the time to start committing to training but in most cases training can compliment whatever else is going on.

I took 18 months off running around the time of our first son and it was too long. When I started back it really felt like I was starting from scratch. However, I ran my first ultra less than 6 months after the birth of our second son.

Sometimes it’s easy to say ‘I’ll do it when’ but instead we can say ‘I’m going to start progressing towards that’. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily run your best marathon this year or next but you are starting moving towards the best that you can do.

And if you enjoy the process then it becomes addictive. You’ll want to see just how far you can go. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then it’s at that point you should change things up or focus on something else.

You may not love running forever so why not do the best you can now while you do?

Consistency: the key to success

7 ways to find consistency with your running

Most things in life take time to get good at. They take dedicated practice. Yet most of us can run without any practice because we learnt the skill when we were young. Because of this, sometimes we choose to believe there are ‘natural’ runners out there and that we have a limited given skill level.

However, we all have the ability to improve greatly through consistent practice. Our fitness improves and so does our technique. We build mental resilience too which is a vital component to running success.

But what does consistency look like? Do we have to be running every day of the week? Do we need to be running 100 miles a week?

What is our potential?

We all have a potential which far exceeds what we’ll ever actually achieve. Even elites may never quite accomplish what they are physically capable of because so many things have to fall into place for a ‘perfect’ outcome.

Just think what lengths Eliud Kipchoge had to go to to break the 2 hour marathon mark. It was physically possible for him but only by optimising his environment with pacers that shielded the air resistance.

Mere mortals like us will never get close to what we could achieve because most of us do not have the time, money or inclination to train as elites would do. We have jobs, families and other commitments.

However, we can achieve a more limited potential that is still much higher than most of us believe. It is governed by how much time and effort we want to commit to it.

Initially, the returns from a relatively small time investment can be huge. After a while, it takes a lot of extra time for small gains so it becomes a question of how far you want to go.

But whatever level of commitment you choose, being consistent week to week speeds up your progress and minimises your risk of injury. The latter is possibly one of the biggest barriers to runners achieving their goals. So how do you get consistency?

Don’t overcommit yourself

The temptation can be to stretch yourself too much at the start. This can either be due to what you think is required to be successful or by watching what others do. I now run 6 days a week every week but that has been built up slowly over years of running 3 then 4 then 5 days a week.

Choose something that is easy for you to achieve. If 3 days seems like a lot, could you run 1 or 2 days at the start? If an hour is too much, could you do 20 or 30 minutes of running each time?

You can always add more days and more minutes to your weeks in the future. The key is to get started with something that you can manage right now.

Put your plan where you can see it

Make yourself a plan by factoring in your weekly commitments and fit your training around them. Preferably, you can find the same slots every week that you will be able to do your training in. If not, then it is even more important to plan.

Make sure you can see your plan especially in the early days. It is easy to forget to do a session at the start if you don’t have a visual prompt. And if you miss one, that’s when you can miss more and the whole plan falls by the wayside.

Print your plan out and stick it where you will see it every day. Maybe in your bedroom, or on the fridge or next to your desk at work. Do it where you need the prompt.

Alternatively, if you are more in favour of a digital reminder, add it to your calendar or add it to your reminders. Again, time the prompts to when they will have the most effect.

Make it easy

Structure your training at times which will give you the most chance of completing it. If you know you only have an hour window at lunchtime between two important meetings then it might be better to plan to do it earlier or later in the day.

If you know that you’re usually tired after work and not in the mood for a run then try and go before work.

Have your gear ready to go where and when you need it. There’s nothing worse than rooting around to try and find a pair of running socks or gloves if you’re in a hurry. If you’re running from somewhere other than home, be sure to check the weather and take everything you’re likely to need, preferably packing your bag the night before.

If food for after your training is an issue (for instance if you’re running at work), make yourself a lunch or snack the night before so that you don’t have to cut your run short to get food from somewhere else.

Work towards something

Consistency is much easier if you’re working towards a goal. The goal could be a race or time trial, a new distance or it could be simply adhering to your plan. In fact it can be useful to have both outcome goals and process goals.

An outcome goal is simply what you want to achieve at the ‘end’ of the training. The ‘end’ here could be a literal end if you decided not to continue running but is more likely to be the end of a block of training.

This could be running a certain distance, or a certain time for a distance. It could be achieving a certain weekly time or distance goal.

A process goal is almost more important. It is what you want to achieve week to week with your training. Sometimes this can be less tangible but it could be along the lines of enjoyment, keeping your consistency going or a weekly improvement in some area.

If we only ever focus on the outcome then it can make week to week training much harder and also increase the disappointment if we don’t quite make our outcome goal.

Keep challenging yourself

As alluded to, having some goals will help maintain your consistency. However, a lot of people respond best when they are challenged. If you set all your goals to be very easy then it is possible to become disinterested.

Find new ways to keep your training interesting and challenging. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of what you can do as long as you build to it sensibly and within the framework of your training.

Build new training stimuli like elevation, new terrain, more distance and more intensity slowly into your training but keep reviewing which areas you would like to change and improve on.

But you need to ‘win’ as well

You can’t keep pushing all the time. That can lead to overuse injuries and becoming burnt out. Remember to keep a high proportion of your training easy. Have some down weeks to recover physically and mentally.

You don’t always have to be on the edge of your capabilities even in harder sessions. Sometimes, accomplishing a session whilst feeling you had a little more to give can be a powerful mental tool for future sessions.

If you are constantly struggling in every session it will sap your enjoyment and increase your doubts of your own abilities. Find a balance to your training that is challenging but where you are able to prevail more often than not.

Keep enjoying what you’re doing

Ultimately, you can follow everything above but if you are not enjoying your training your consistency will wane in the end. Hopefully following everything above will sustain both your enjoyment and your consistency.

Of course there will always be the odd session that didn’t go to plan or you didn’t feel 100% on but if that is happening more often than not then you need to change something up. Go back through the list. Is your training sustainable, working towards a goal, challenging but also manageable?

By staying consistent with your training you greatly reduce the risk of injury caused by sporadic high and low mileage weeks. You will also raise your base fitness to a much higher level allowing you to build and excel at your running in the future.

Don’t be afraid to dream

Why most of us are constantly underachieving

It’s the time of year we like to set new goals and look forward to the future. We think about all the things we ‘did wrong’ last year and sometimes we might consider what went right too.

What are your goals for this new year? How did you arrive at them? Is there a burning desire to achieve something or did you just feel like you should set something to do?

How ambitious are your goals? Did you set something outside of your comfort zone or are you playing it safe? Are you worried what people will say if you fail?

Why are we afraid to push our boundaries?

Most people are afraid to think big. It has been ingrained in us at an early age that we shouldn’t fail. (Actually I’m pleased to say that this is a message that has started to change in schools. At my son’s primary school they do talk about reframing failure as a learning opportunity).

But for me and for many, the emphasis was always on ‘good results’ and ‘staying out of trouble’ and ‘conforming to the expected norm’. The result is that most people lead average lives putting an average amount of effort into everything and thinking that we’re only capable of average.

That belief coupled with worrying what other people think if we try and do something out of the ordinary leaves us too scared to try something radically new. Yet the reality is that because so many people think like this, it isn’t as hard as you think to do something more extreme.

Your ‘why’ has to be strong

If you don’t have a strong reason for doing something then it will be difficult to follow through with it. People’s reasons for doing things vary greatly and can be very personal. They might also not be immediately obvious. You might have to ask ‘why’ several times before you find the root reason.

For example: I want to run – why – to complete a marathon – why – to raise money for charity – why – because it is a cause I believe in strongly – why – because a member of my family suffered from the disease and I want to help others in that situation.

A strong reason will help you battle through when things get tough.

How big should the goal be?

The size of the goal is going to be very individual too. The goal of running a marathon might feel a very long way off for someone new to running but it wouldn’t be a big challenge for me without adding a strict time element. Conversely, a 100 mile race would be a big challenge for me but not for accomplished ultramarathoners.

Fitness entrepreneur Brian Keane says you should pick a goal that feels a little over what you think you could reasonably achieve. I agree with this. It needs to be something that you would absolutely love to achieve but also not something so wild that you will quickly get discouraged.

You have to be completely honest with yourself when assessing this. The context is key too. It is absolutely possible for many people to drop their marathon time by 30 minutes or more because their training has never been ideal. It would be very hard indeed for me to drop 30 minutes.

It can be tempting to play it too safe. Time goals especially lend themselves to this. It could be far more compelling to go for a sub 4 hour marathon than a sub 3:50 marathon but the latter might be the right goal for you to really get the best out of yourself. The sub 4 will come for free.

Tell people your goal

It is scary to pick a goal that you might fail at. But failure doesn’t need to be the end of the story. You can tweak things and go back and try again or you can change course to something else more suited.

Unless you are very strong willed it is a good idea to make your target public or at least tell people close to you. It gives an extra incentive to keep going when things are difficult. It also stops you backing out if you start doubting yourself.

In the extreme case, people will tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do something. If your reason is strong enough, you will use this as fuel to prove them wrong and do it anyway. That’s precisely what happened to me in 2017.

What does an ‘unrealistic’ goal look like?

In 2017 I decided to run 24 parkruns (5k routes) across Northern Ireland in 24 hours. I was inspired by Eddie Izzard’s 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa (in my opinion a much more impressive feat).

I was told by numerous people that it couldn’t be done. And they had good reason to doubt me. I’d never run more than a marathon, logistically it seemed a nightmare and to be completely honest, I didn’t know if I could do it myself.

Once I said I was doing it publicly I knew I couldn’t change my mind. I was going to do it or crash spectacularly trying. But those doubting voices including my own added fuel to the fire.

My ‘why’ was strong. I was doing it in tribute to my late Mum, a marathoner and inspiration for my own running whilst raising money for charity.

I chose the challenge because it was different to anything other people were doing and anything I’d done before. I didn’t want to ‘play it safe’ and it also made me feel more confident asking for sponsorship!

So many people got on board with it in terms of running, organisation and sponsorship which made it a huge success raising over £10000. I am indebted to all those people but I do think the project appealed more because it was quite extreme (for me at that time).

What does ‘unrealistic’ mean to you?

Reevaluate your own goals for 2021. You don’t have to go as extreme as I did in 2017 (I haven’t myself) and it is all relative but could you push your targets a bit more?

If you plan to run a 5k – could you run a 10k? If you are targeting a 5 minute PB in the marathon, could you make it 10 minutes? If you want to raise £1000, could you raise £2000?

Choose something that makes you feel uncomfortable and start achieving!

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