Discomfort. For most runners, whether fast or slow, running long distances or short sprints, peak performance is all about your tolerance of discomfort, or at the very least your ability to ignore it.
This is obviously a choice, or a state of mind. It is quite possible to run, even perform well, in training and in races, without experiencing too much discomfort. Gnarly, old-school club runners would accuse you of coasting and not pushing yourself but I certainly wouldn’t. If that’s what you enjoy and it keeps you fit and active, go for it.
However, most runners are generally trying to push the envelope at whatever level they are operating at, and to do that you have to manage discomfort.
I know many a very fast runner who would consider discomfort anything over the 10k mark and think anything over half marathon to be the domain of utter psychopaths and lunatics! Personally I am the opposite; I’m increasingly scared of pushing myself to the limits in training or 5k/10k races but am more willing to push the envelope in terms of time, distance or terrain.
But something I am still learning, as I become more experienced, is that discomfort is a lot more in the mind than you may think – or at least that you can train your mind to manage that discomfort at the time you need to overcome it.
Why am I telling you this? Well, mostly because, as I continued to think about my experiences on last years Lakeland 100 and read the feedback from my blog last August, a couple of points made by fellow runners really stuck in my mind. I will come to these later, but first, a little 2018 race recap…
September – December 2018 – back to the short stuff.
The pressure of training for a big ultra can be overbearing, just as it can be for a marathon or a debut half marathon. The enjoyment of running can quickly be lost as you feel the pressure to ‘have to’ go out for a run, rather that going because you want to.
I wanted to relieve myself of that pressure to end the year so I literally just went out when I wanted to. I binned all the long runs and just ran for fun. I did, however, make a conscious effort to train faster and smarter. By necessity the first half of the year had been to run far and slow whenever I could. The end of the year would be short and as fast as possible.
I’d never done Parkrun before until this summer! But camping near to the Eden Project gave us a great opportunity as, not only is it an amazing place to take the family for a little run, you also get FREE entrance to the Eden Project itself if you take part! (I must have mentioned this to everyone I’ve met since!) So we went on both Saturdays of our holidays.
The course is quite a challenging one as far as Parkruns go, as you spend the entire 5k running up and down the hillside paths round hairpin bends. It’s certainly a good challenge though! The first time I ran round with the girls for fun but the second week Leanne gave me the green light to run alone and see what I could do. I was pretty pleased with 19m11s in the circumstances of the course and as it was only a couple of weeks after the LL100.
Leanne and I went to the Wolves Parkrun at West Park in early November and I ran 19m06s. I was hoping for sub19 really but I enjoyed the challenge none-the-less. It certainly backed up my introduction comments that I find a ‘full-gas’ 5k harder than most ultras!
Keswick Lakeland Trails 15k, Saturday 1st September 2018
I’m not sure if my view of this race is distorted by the fact that, after the summer holidays, I often arrive at this race on the first week of September not at peak fitness! But I find this the hardest race on the Lakeland Trails calendar. At least I was mentally ready this time – I knew from the year before that the opening woodland section which has replaced the old railway line start is infinitely harder. Last year I was burned out in the first two miles – this year I took it easy until the climb begins in earnest and was able to finish stronger. I was only 45 seconds faster than 12 months previously but I felt a lot better about my run. I was still spent though – that steep descent into Keswick really does not agree with me! Oh, and as the picture below shows, I was nearly knocked off the path by a killer Labrador…
Endurance Store MacMillan Coffee Morning Run, Saturday 29th September, 2018.
1st place! All-be-it in very fortunate circumstances. But “A win is a win!” as Marc Laithwaithe, the organiser, said so, given that it is probably the only individual running race which I will ever win, I’ll claim it!
Pretty much a straight shoot up and down Parbold Hill from a school near my house, I set off in 2nd place and knew that is where I would remain as local lad and St Helens Strider Kane Green disappeared into the distance. As I huffed and puffed my way to the half-way point around the Beacon at the top, the marshal shouted “Well done lad, it’s your race to lose now!”
“I’m not even winning!” I replied.
“Well your the first runner to get here,” he replied!
So I set off on the return leg which, being an out and back, affords you a view of the competition in persuit. With no Kane Green in sight and the other runners a decent way back, I knew I could enjoy the return leg to the finish line. It turned out Kane missed a turn just before the summit, hence my ‘win’ being more than a little fortuitous.
Rainford 10k, Sunday 7th October, 2018.
This was the big one for me really. I mentioned in the introduction about how I am more intimidated by 10k than ultra. Ever since I ran 36m50s, mostly in surprise, at the 2016 Wigan 10k, I have never run a 10k since. Mostly because I just don’t do many road races but at least partly because, as I had always previously beaten my PBs, I knew I couldn’t beat that one. I was genuinely apprehensive of laying it all out for 40 minutes and how that would feel.
So I deliberately chose a race that was reasonably small and that I was pretty sure no-one I knew would be attending. I didn’t want to be distracted by anyone else’s pace, just to give it absolutely everything I had and, if I completely blew up, it didn’t really matter. In my head, if I could go sub 40 and maybe get close to 39, I would be delighted.
It was a perfect morning for running and I absolutely went for it from the start. I went through half way in 19m15 – it was the only time I looked at my watch! I was totally gassed by 6k and by 8k I could have crawled into the road gutter and cried!
As I mentioned in the introduction, discomfort management is the key in these short and (for me at least) painful races. I told my brain that every corner in the course was the finish line. When I got there, I told my brain it was the next corner. And so on. It really is the only way I find to keep myself going at maximum pace.
The last few kms have a bit of trail involved which inevitably took a slight edge off my pace. But I was pretty delighted to finish in 7th place in a time of 38m44s. It was more than I dared hope for and, I could certainly say with hand on heart, was the absolute best I could achieve on the day.
I can also now scientifically say that I am exactly two minutes slower than I was two years ago!
Lakeland Trails Dirty Double Weekender, Helvellyn/Ullswater, 13th/14th October 2018.
The picture at the top of the blog is of the Saturday race – enough said. An utter monsoon! I spent more of the race on my arse than my feet as I quickly realised that the dry summer trails had removed the grip from my Inov8s!
A few glasses of wine followed again at the hotel on Saturday night with good company before the Sunday dawned. Again, for the umpteenth time, the boats were cancelled. However, in all honesty I now prefer the Lakeland Trails back-up route more – it’s definitely more challenging – and I ran OK on the Sunday without mishap.
This weekend is way more about the social than the running though and Leanne and I had a great time with our friends.
Standish Hall Trail Race, Saturday 2oth October, 2018.
More scientific proof that I am exactly two minutes slower than my previous best! I hadn’t realised that I hadn’t run this race for 3 years, when I finished 4th in the race. Mostly I have cheered Leanne on here since. So it was nice to get back out there and see what I could do.
I ran pretty well to finish in 13th place. The course is bang on 10k and I finished in 42 minutes which wasn’t bad. The conditions were pretty dry really so it was another good gauge of pace.
It was nice to be back amongst Wigan Harriers friends and we claimed the team prize again thanks to a good team effort.
League Cross Country Fixtures: Sefton Park, Liverpool and Hyndsford, nr Accrington.
Sefton Park is a biggie, tied into the National U23 Champs, so you get to run against some young good ‘uns! I’ve done this one a few times before so it was a bit of a surprise at first to find I was over a minute faster than I’d ever been! But then I quickly realised that this event is usually a mud fest and this year it was extremely firm underfoot, which fully explained the average pace.
Hyndsford was probably my favourite XC course to date. Mostly because it is more like a trail race than a cross country. The weather was absolutely foul which certainly gave it more of an authentic cross country feel! Our team tent barely survived the wind and rain onslaught but our actual runners stood up to the test much better and performed really well.
And so to 2019…… the return to The Lakeland 100.
I had planned to write this blog a couple of weeks ago before the end of January. If I had I would be telling you all about my best ever start to a year (mileage-wise at least) and how positive I am going to be this year.
However, I am now sat here on the first day of the half-term holidays injured and slightly apprehensive about the next few weeks. What I thought was cramp in my right calf during last weeks muddy trail run is now appearing to be more of a calf strain so I am desperately trying to remain patient and let it heel whilst all the time watching my excellent start to the year disappear over the horizon!
Obviously, having successfully re-entered the 2019 edition of the Lakeland 100, I have only one aim and one focus for the year. I have entered some other races but they are all preparatory training runs building up to the big one. In running terms, nothing else matters and everything I do running wise will be focused on one (and a half!) days in July.
So, linking to my introduction, what do I think I have ultimately learned from my 2018 Lakeland 100 experience?
Firstly, thanks to everyone who read my race report. I received all kinds of feedback from all kinds of people – runners offering support and advice; non-runners wondering what the hell I am thinking in the first place.
Some advice was good, some (in my opinion) not so:
Pop the Pills!
It never ceases to amaze me how many runners get by fuelled on drugs! More than one person suggested a regular intake of painkillers and/or Pro-Plus to stop me getting sleepy. Each to their own and all that, but I cannot believe this is how some people choose to run. I am no doctor but I’m pretty certain this is not a healthy way to operate and, in more extreme cases, must border on dangerous.
Pain is ultimately your body telling you something is amiss. Obviously a race of this magnitude is going to hurt so I am definitely going to go down the line of embracing the pain rather than masking it. If it really hurts that much then, from a health point of view, it is probably better to stop. I may be being totally naive here, or not ‘professional’ enough, but personally I am not willing to risk my future health to finish a running race. It’s not that important.
How are you going to practice getting better at sleep deprivation?
This is a great question as, ultimately, I don’t think I can. I just love a nap! Even when fully rested I can always sneak an afternoon nap if time permits. That’s just the way it is. But what I can do is be more aware of the potential for negative thinking when I get sleepy.
This was brought home to me on December the 23rd this year. Leanne and I had done some Christmas wrapping and were just going to bed at about 1am when we inadvertently disturbed Lottie. NFL was on TV so I did the ‘dedicated Daddy’ bit and took Lottie downstairs. BIG MISTAKE! She now thought it was morning! For the next 5 hours she played like it was proper morning and absolutely refused to accept that it was actually the middle of the night!
By about 5am I was beside myself! I was so angry and frustrated – I couldn’t think of anything except getting in bed! It was at this point that I realised this was my mood exactly at Mardale Head last year when I dropped out – ‘Just let me get in that nice warm minibus and have a sleep!’
So, what can I do to improve this? Nothing really, in my opinion, although I have entered a night ultra to get used to that grumpy feeling and run through it. But that is what I hope I’ve learned – I can’t get better at it, but I can get better at RECOGNISING it. If I can recognise it, I can tell my brain that it’s nothing to do with not being able to run anymore, it’s simply sleepiness. And I’ve got lots of time to sleep after the race! I still remain convinced that physically I was in good shape to finish the race in 2018 but I let the sleepiness beat me.
How do you plan to develop your mental strength?
This is ultimately the crux of my 2019 effort. And this is where I think I have the answer for next year.
As with sleep deprivation, you can’t really get better at it, but you can get used to it and be better prepared for the negative thoughts that are inevitable in these races.
Firstly, I already know that there are peaks and troughs in a race. I had a low point at Dalemain last year and recovered. I need to remember that.
Secondly, I avoided low points at Dockray and Howtown. I could have sulked about the terrible weather at both those checkpoints but I actually used it to my advantage and just kept going with a minimal break – I didn’t allow time for my mind to wander towards stopping. Both times I emerged from the checkpoint feeling great! I’ll remember this next year.
Thirdly, Rob and I have talked at length about our ‘team decision’ to drop out! I can pretty much guarantee that that situation will not arise this year! Rob is still fuming about his DNF so there is no way we’ll be asking each other if we’re going to stop this year!
But fourthly, and this is the biggie….
I re-read my pre-race blog and race report and was a little taken aback by the negative mind-set that underpinned those blogs. I was very quick to tell you that only 60% of runners ever finish the race on average. Last year only 50% finished. Both of these are indisputable facts, so why are they negative?
Well, I realise now that I was building myself an escape hatch! By constantly telling you all how hard the race is, I feel I was building it up to be more than it is whilst at the same time allowing an avenue for me later to tell you that ‘It’s OK that I didn’t finish because it’s really hard.’
I completely convinced myself that I was out of my depth and it would be amazing if I finished. I’d done well just to qualify for the race so not finishing was no disaster.
This will not be the mindset for 2019.
The course no longer intimidates me. I know it well and will have run most of it three or four times by the time of the 2019 race. Of course it’s a challenge but I don’t need to be afraid of it. Just work from checkpoint to checkpoint and don’t think about the long game. I know I can run round the course comfortably in the time limit; I just need to manage my mindset, be prepared for the sleepiness and deal with the external factors (like conditions underfoot and weather) as they present themselves.
Rob and I returned to Mardale Head to run the last 30 miles of the race route to Coniston a couple of weeks ago. We thought it was appropriate to begin our 2019 training by completing the circle from 2018.
Again the lakes threw a weather bomb at us but we absolutely cruised along. 12 months ago I would have considered this a major day out. This year we had just run three-fifths of the Lakeland 50 as a comfortable little warm-up jaunt. And that is all down to mindset. If you think it’s going to be easy, it probably will be. If you think it’s going to be impossibly hard…
So there you have it. Up-to-date and up for it. I am just having my own little mini-mindset crisis – trying not to totally lose the plot over this injury and the lost miles this half term. But the plan is solid. Easter is going to be massive – Rob and I are spending a week in Snowdonia hitting the hills, and again have a race schedule to build us up to the main event.
I recently looked back over my running from the last couple of years and have targeted areas where I can make sizeable improvements to my training for this year. (Ironically, one of them was February half-term! I lost 2017 half term to illness and 2018 to injury. Oh well, 2019 has followed the pattern!)
Rob is absolutely flying along though. We can’t control the weather or the conditions but we can control everything else. Let’s see where it gets us.
Oh, and I’m going to blog more too…(!)
Hopefully see you all on the trails in 2019. Belated happy new year to all of you. Don’t waste it, life is too short.