Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Last Year, not These Days

I'm trying on a new shirt in the bedroom when Whirlwind rushes in.

'What you doing, Dad?' she says.

'Just trying on this new shirt,' I tell her, 'What do you reckon?'

'Dad!' she exclaims, 'You look like Grandad!'

By the tone of her voice, I'm judging that's not a compliment. I look at her, nonplussed.

She carries on.

'What you need to do is roll your sleeves up.'


'And undo another one of those top buttons.'

I do as she suggests, not above taking fashion tips from a nine-year old girl.

'There!' I say when I'm done.

She looks at me again, sticks both thumbs up and says, 'Now you're cool Dad!'

'Thanks,' I say and she skips out the room, bounds down the stairs, three at a time, and runs into the kitchen.

I hear her talking to Tam while I'm changing back into my favourite old sweatshirt - a tatty green top with a 'Curtin University' logo that I bought in 1990.

'Mum,' I hear her saying, 'I've just made Daddy cool! He needs to be 'these days,' not 'last year'!'

It's the end of July and, for the next few days, Whirlwind's phrase keeps appearing.

These Days, not Last Year.

I think about it a fair bit, mull over how my young daughter must see me at times, through her eyes. What it must be like for a pre-teen firecracker to have a Dad who is so obviously 'last year', not 'these days.' A Dad who's never owned an mp3 player or downloaded any music from the internet, preferring instead vinyl or CDs. A Dad who reads books - real books made out of paper - and refuses to buy a Kindle. A Dad who will always write things down on paper first - biro and blank A4. A Dad who's ambition to keep up with the latest model of mobile phone ended with the Nokia 3310. A Dad who's never played on an X-Box or Playstation, preferring instead to slip on a pair of muddy trainers and just go out for a run.

I look at myself as she might see me, and realise she has a point. I am 'last year' or years past that.

But that's just me. Is it a bad thing?

Bearing all this in mind, maybe it was coincidence what happened in the following couple of weeks. Or maybe it wasn't.

Firstly, I chanced upon a blog site called Acceptable in the Eighties. Written by an undergraduate with a passion for running, several of its opening paragraphs really touched a nerve:

The world of running has changed a lot since its British heyday in the 70’s and 80’s. “It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe,” Kenny Moore wrote, “but runners in those days were regarded as eccentric at best, subversive and dangerous at worst.” Now it seems, in Edinburgh at least, that everyone is a runner. In the running shop I work in, all kinds of people come in with variations of the same story. “For some reason, I’ve signed up to run a marathon, so I need some shoes,” they say, or “the guys in the office have talked me into running in their relay team.” For some, joining the fold as a “runner” has become a good way into office social life. Runners are respected, not mistrusted. Participation has come a long way since Kenny Moore’s time. 
The ever-increasing popularity of running should lead to an improvement in standards, with the widening base of the pyramid pushing up its peak. In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect. When I’m asked by people in the shop how much running I do, I tell them I run eighty to ninety miles per week. The usual response to this is a look of pity and something along the lines of “oh, so you’re a serious runner then.” The assumption seems to be that whilst running is seen as enjoyable, at least to an extent, anyone who does an excessive amount is seen to be killing that enjoyment.
I have nothing against mass participation running. I agree with Haile Gebreselassie, when he says he reckons that the world would be a saner place if everyone ran every day. But the expansion of the market for running-related products, energy foods, pilates and yoga for runners seems to have distracted people from the fact that running training is a simple process. So simple, in fact, that it would appear impossible to fill a monthly magazine with new ideas on how to do it better. Nevertheless, these magazines proliferate, with cover articles like “Train less, run faster!” and “how chocolate cake can make you a better runner!” (no, these aren’t made up). A simple activity has been complicated to suit the needs of sports brands who need to find ways to make money out of a sport which really only demands a half decent pair of trainers.
The argument that sports scientists tend to make when you point out that the likes of Brendan Foster and Charlie Spedding achieved all that they did without nutritionists and scientific testing is that they would have been even faster if they’d done these new things too. Huge amounts of scientific data are compiled on the benefits of training at altitude and on new forms of strength and flexibility training. But those trying to apply scientific methods conveniently fail to recognise the simple objective fact that British distance runners were faster thirty years ago than they are now. A lot faster. And that is the only test that really matters.
The most important aspects of a distance runner’s training are patience and consistency. These things are not glamorous. They don’t fit in particularly well in today’s society. There are no quick fixes and no immediate gratification. But there is satisfaction in something done to the best of your ability and with conviction. There is solace in repeating a simple activity until it becomes smooth, efficient and, of course, faster.
For the next few months, I’ll be referring to my coach’s training diaries for 1981 and 1982, and writing about the experience of doing the simple things right and trying to replicate the kind of training that was done in his day. The diaries represent two years of accumulated sweat and effort on his part distilled into numbers – 9,037 miles to be precise. They are pretty short on description, with the prize for most commonly used adjective going fairly overwhelmingly to “tired”, and contain only occasional elaboration (“tired – knackered actually”). They chronicle the day-in-day-out toil of trying to run 26.2 miles at as fast a pace as possible and the conviction that anything worth doing is worth doing right.
And so I’m off, to publicly try to challenge the theory that my generation are doing it all wrong. I can’t deny that it’s easier for me, after all. I’m a student; my coach had a marriage, a mortgage, children and a full time job to worry about. His final words of wisdom as I walked down his driveway: “Mike, lose those diaries, and I’ll kill you.”

Last Year, not These Days.

Secondly, whilst exploring the content of a plastic box of memories, I unearthed a photograph. Frayed by age and bleached by the passage of time, it was obviously taken during the 1980's. It took me a moment to remember where exactly I'd done just that.

It shows a group of runners, frozen for a moment, but moving at some speed. Sweat-bands, nylon shorts and Viga club vests are the order of the day. Beside a wooden fence, a number of paste tables are groaning under the weight of hundreds of plastic cups of water. Young boys and middle-aged helpers in casual clothes hold out drinks to the passing athletes. Red, white and blue bunting hangs forlornly, strung between adjacent lamp-posts.

I'd taken that picture during the 1985 London Marathon. Look closely and you'll see that second in the leading group is Steve Jones. Jones won the race that year in 2.08.16. In the last 28 years, no Brit has run the London Marathon faster. Come October, Jones would be in Chicago running an astounding 2.07.13, one agonising second behind Carlos Lopez's world record - a time that still stands as the UK marathon record.

Look more closely at the picture and you might notice that Jones isn't wearing a watch. In fact, most of the leaders aren't. This was real racing - running for position, not running to hit preconceived mile splits. And this was a hallmark of Jones. He didn't need a watch. He ran to 'feel'. He ran as fast and as far as his body could take him, and when he'd destroyed the opposition, he just ran some more.

Last Year, not These Days.

The third event to inspire my plan was a casual meeting with a fellow runner whilst we were both waiting for our kids to finish a junior race. After chatting about injuries, niggles and 'how're going at the moment', my friend went into some detail about his new training regime. Simply put, he'd dug out the old training diaries of his father - a well-respected figure in the area during the 1980's, who's road times put to shame the current crop of local fast boys - and was trying, as far as possible, to follow them. The secrets of success, it seemed, were fairly straight-forward. To run fast you needed to run a lot, you needed to race often and you needed to work hard.

Surprised at what I was hearing, I told him about the blog I'd come across - a young guy doing exactly the same as he was doing. Was it pure chance, or were they both on to something? I vowed to find out.

Last Year, not These Days.

Just as every good story starts with a title, my plan needed a name before it could go any further. I toyed for a bit with 'Project 2.50's', before settling on the snazzier and more enigmatic 'Project 253' - a reference to my fastest marathon time since returning to running some years back - 2.53 in the 2007 London Marathon. Now the important part was done, I could concentrate on what I actually wanted to achieve and how I intended to do it.

Already in the year I'd run two marathons - the hilly Windermere and the off-road Boston to Skegness Seabank. Although pleased with my performances, the times I'd run - 3.02 in both - had left me a little underwhelmed. In my younger days, off a marathon PB of 2.38, the magical '3 hour barrier' had always seemed phoney. Back in the '80's, it seemed that anyone half-decent could go under 3 hours. But now, at the age of 46 and armed with a heart that needs a pacemaker to keep beating, that same barrier seemed a tougher nut to crack. This , then, is what I'd aim for - a sub 3 hour autumn road marathon.

Checking the fixture listings, I quickly narrowed down the shortlist of possibilities to two - the Nottingham at the end of September, or the Mablethorpe at the start of October. Both were similar - two lap courses with the marathoners joining the half-marathoners for the first lap. Both had a reputation for being fairly fast. However, the Nottingham was a much bigger race. Bearing this in mind, and sticking to my dictum of 'lower-key is always better', I decided to opt for Mablethorpe.

I now had 8 weeks to get myself into sub 3 hour shape. Whilst this was daunting in itself, I was determined to do this in my own way. My training would be simple. Simple in the extreme. For the next 8 weeks, I'd run Last Year, not These Days.

This simple approach would include 4 major elements:

1. I'd shun all modern technology

I rarely run with a GPS or a watch, so this seemed like no big deal. But going out for a long run without a watch was a different matter to aiming to break a very specific time in a race without a watch. To do this, I'd have to trust myself, believe in myself without the constant crutch of estimated pace readouts or mile splits. To do this, I'd have to truly run by feel.

In Project 253, every run would be done without access to time. No run would be measured, time-wise or distance-wise, by watch or GPS. Even on race day, my wrist would be bare.

2. I'd use basic equipment

In order to prove that Last Year was at least as effective as These Days, I'd avoid any products that weren't around in the '80's. There'd be no flashy, over-priced trainers, no compression socks, arm sleeves, sports drinks, protein recovery shakes or gels. You get the picture.

3. I'd run often and run a lot.

The best guys from the '80's worked hard. There was none of that 'you're doing too much' rubbish that you're always greeted with if you mention you're running more than 50 miles a week. Therefore, I'd follow suit. I'd run everyday, with just the occasional rest. I'd run however miles in a week my body allowed me to without breaking down. I'd include a fair deal of easy running, but, for a short while, there'd be fewer empty miles and more that required real effort.

4. I'd race often

Some runners nowadays are scared to race. They'll save themselves till they are fully-fit, aware, I guess, that they don't want to lose face in front of interested onlookers.

The '80's guys had no time for all that. Most races were a means to an end. Most were 'training' for the all-important target race. The '80's guys raced themselves fit. I would follow their lead.

There's not many plans that work out as they should. This one was no exception. Before it had really got started, it had all gone wrong. A 60 mile race in the Peak District had bashed me up more than I would have liked. As I was due to start my 8-week marathon build-up, a painful hip left me able to do little more than jog for a couple of weeks. Pissed off and frustrated, I hastily abandoned Project 253. It had been a dumb idea anyway. A sub-3 would have to wait till another time.

Further into August, however, things seemed so much brighter. Regular post-run exercises had freed up my hip flexors sufficiently, I'd had a decent outing at a mid-week off-road 10k, and had been re-inspired by reading the blog of a local lad, Aaron Scott. A familiar face on the Lincolnshire scene, Aaron - a young man of great talent - had been writing weekly updates in the run-up to attempting to run a Commonwealth Games marathon qualifying standard (2.18 or thereabouts) in Frankfurt at the end of October. Now this kid was hammering it big style - just like my road heroes of the '80's. Epic sessions (4 x 5k in under 16 minutes, off a 2 minute recovery) and big, big mileage (upwards of 130 miles a week). It was obvious that he wanted this badly, and to achieve it he was giving everything he'd got.

With less than 6 weeks to my own race day, I figured what have I got to lose? Project 253 was back on.

I quickly fell into a routine that had served me well through the year - daily short doubles of no further than 8 miles, alternate harder and easier days, plenty of hill running and a longer run at the weekend. All of this on approximate distance and all of it without a watch.

Whilst I never do any speed work, I consciously pushed the pace on my steady runs, and relied on another ingredient - a liberal sprinkling of races - to provide the pep I'd need come the marathon.

For 4 weeks, things went well. My mileage hit the 90-a-week mark, the performances in the 5 races I took part in during this period got increasingly ok, and my confidence in achieving my goal improved. All this time, I stuck doggedly to the rules I'd set myself. I trained without a GPS, I raced without a watch and I ran in a cheap pair of trainers that I'd bought for less than £20.

Many beginners make the mistake of thinking that no-one can possibly be a serious runner unless they're following a schedule. I'm no fan of schedules - schedules assume you're going to feel a particular way on a particular day. I use discipline instead. I'm incredibly disciplined with my running - I rarely miss a day - and the lack of schedule means I've the freedom to swap about harder and easier runs to the times when my body is best able to cope with either. It's always worked well for me in the past and it seemed to be working now. I just couldn't resist the temptation to step it up.

Most of the time I forget that I'm not far off 50. In my younger days, I could knock out 100 miles weeks, seemingly for months at a time. Nowadays, it's obvious that I can't. Just as I was beginning to think I was ready, an ominent indicator of over-use arose to greet me. With 2 weeks to go, a painful right knee started bugging me. But I was too near now to give up. A 2 week taper, I always believe, is too much. This time round, though, I had no choice.

A few days before the race, it's a Monday night - Club night - and I'm running with the Jolly Friar - a good friend, a great runner and a guy whose opinions I always trust. 'Ready for the weekend?' he'd asked me. I'd replied that things had been going well, but I felt like I'd come off the boil and was going into it a bit undercooked. In the space of half a mile, he'd convinced me to relax, think positive and acknowledge to myself that I'd done enough to do what I'd set out to do.

But doubts continued to gnaw gently. Worries. Questions. Only the race would provide the answers.

If I'm honest, race reports bore me. So, I'm not going to bore you.

On Saturday 6th October, I ran the Mablethorpe Marathon. I completed it in a time of 2.58.27 and finished 3rd. That'll do.

I'd decided to go out hard and hang on - and that's what I did. I later found out that I'd run the first half in 1.25 (too fast), and the second in 1.33 (too slow). The end result, however was more than acceptable.

So, I guess, Project 253 was a success. But just as the excerpt from 'Acceptable in the Eighties' infers at the start of this post, my result ironically raises more questions than it provides answers:

- Would I have run a faster time if I'd followed a stricter schedule?

- Would I have done better if I'd used a GPS and watch in my training, and done more prescriptive speed sessions?

- Would I have run more even splits, thereby guaranteeing a faster overall finishing time, if I'd worn a watch during the race instead of going on 'feel'?

- Would I have hung on better in the second half if I'd used sports drinks and gels instead of plain old water?

There's all these, and probably many more.

But, at the same time, it's important to realise that Project 253 does indeed provide some valuable answers.

It proves that you can run well without resort to any of the running-related crap that the activity is swamped with nowadays.

It proves that you can achieve what you want without spending hundreds of pounds on stuff that companies would have you believe you can't do without.

It proves that you don't need gadgets, complicated training regimes and the dubious suggestions of modern science.

It proves that all you need to run quickly is basic kit, a desire and a ton of determination.

And, most importantly, it proves, when all is said and done, that running is simple.

Last Year, better than These Days?

I say Yes.


1 comment:

  1. Well done! Very interesting. I'm a distinctly average runner. Had cramp in all my marathons (club feet) so PB embarrasingly 4:41, though my half time is a little better ar 1:46. Managed some ultras now without cramp so hoping the next mara might be different. Am currently distracted with a 9 month old, so all my running is commuting at 9 miles, and a bit intermittent. Injuries and colds have blighted the year. It would be nice to just get some consistent running in. I seem to be using your blog to vent.