Reflections from Manchester 48 hours on

I woke up this morning, now 48 hours on from the marathon, still basking in that warm glow of satisfaction having dealt with my demons and delivered a perfectly executed plan in the race.

The recovery swim and bike sessions from yesterday have done the trick and my legs are feeling much better already. I feel that I’m well on the way to recovering from the battering that the marathon inevitably gives the legs.

I’ve recently been doing some work with one of my clients about what it takes to be a winner and the thing that stands out amongst many success factors is the focus that these winning people have on looking forward. As soon as a victory has been secured they are onto the next thing. Every success is simply a stepping stone towards the next goal.

So I was fascinated to notice that whilst I was in the pool and on the bike yesterday my mind started to whirl again. “I wonder how much faster I really could run the marathon in the future?” Clearly a new goal is forming in my head as I now believe that more is in me than I dared to imagine only a few days ago.

Before moving on though, its important to learn a few lessons from what happened on Sunday. Why did the race go so well? As this blog is all about inspiring the achievement of extraordinary things I thought it may be useful to share why and how I believe I achieved my own extraordinary thing in Manchester.

A huge part of endurance sport is mental. I’ve talked at length about my marathon demon of self doubt that has been festering for many years and it was so important that I’d dealt with it ahead of race day. Standing on the start-line hoping it would be ok is not a recipe for success. For me, having a very explicit conversation about my concerns and doubts with someone that I trusted and whose opinions I valued on this subject was a key step. This conversation clarified that there was much more evidence against the limiting belief that “my body can’t cope with the punishment of a marathon” than there was to support it. As a result of that conversation with Annie I was able to go through a process of reframing for myself. Here are just some of the facts that I used in that exercise to rid my brain of the demon:

  • I am now an experienced endurance athlete
  • I regularly complete and succeed at equally/more demanding events than the marathon
  • I have been clocking up some huge weeks of tri training since the beginning of 2017
  • I have been bouncing back really well from some heavy sessions

I used these facts (importantly, not opinions) to form a new positive belief that I took with me to the start line: Tri training is the best way to prepare my body to perform a marathon.

With this inspiring thought firmly positioned at the front of my head I then set about creating a plan for the race. There is that old saying that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and nothing could be truer in relation to the marathon.

You have to go into the race with a very clear plan of what you want to happen. This plan needs to be controllable. Mine looked like this.

  • Go into the race well rested, hydrated and nourished. Eat lots of green veg, good carbs and fats, plus protein during the days leading upto the race. Eat a bowl of my favorite bircher 3 hours before the race. Sip on water with electrolytes during the last few hours pre race.
  • Be disciplined to run an even paced race, know exactly what the mile splits need to be and ensure you don’t get carried away with the euphoria of the early stages. Adjust your pace, even if it feels too easy.
  • Be disciplined about hydration and nutrition. Take advantage of every water station so that you are drinking little and often. Take on board a gel after 45 minutes and then one every half an hour from then on. This keeps the energy levels topped up and avoids hitting the dreaded wall.
  • Stay in the moment. Soak up the atmosphere. Enjoy what is going on around you right now. Avoid thinking ahead. Allow thoughts to appear and drift away again. Consciously run through a technique checklist every mile or so to ensure you remain relaxed. Think hands, arms, shoulders, head, core, foot placement. Relaxation is key.

That was it. There was a physical, mental and nutritional aspect to it. Keep it that simple. Have a plan that is realistic and controllable, and then during the race all you have to do is execute it. However, just because its simple doesn’t make it easy. That in a nutshell is the challenge of the marathon!

This time I was able to execute the plan almost perfectly because I understood what was within my control and I remained focused on the 3 dimensions of it throughout. Also I was fortunate that nothing outside of my control affected me. Sometimes this happens and if so we need to accept it and adjust the plan accordingly.

Reflecting on why things went well is powerful learning for me and I’ll take this forward into my next set of challenges. I hope it can be helpful to others too.

 

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Marathon Demons Well and Truly Extinguished in Manchester

The marathon has developed a very special place in our culture.  As I discussed in my last post I feel it brings out the best in people: supporters, volunteers and runners alike who invariably come together to create unforgettable experience on the streets of our cities. The people of Manchester certainly created another set of beautiful memories yesterday for everyone of the 15000 runners taking part. Thank you Manchester.

The challenge of the distance can bring with it fear, self doubt and of course when it is accomplished it also brings loads of positive emotions associated with the respect from others and pride in oneself. Those that have never run a marathon are often aware of the mystical “wall” that apparently awaits at around 20 miles. Maybe this is the reason that so many show their support for marathon runners (both with their physical presence at the events and financial charity support) to help them overcome their own walls. Is it physical, mental or a bit of both? Probably a bit of both but the size of the wall can certainly be made much, much higher through negative thinking.

My own wall or demon had been building for 26 years. In 5 marathon attempts since 1991 I’d struggled to execute a really good race and so my demon of self doubt was deeply entrenched. Could my body deal with the physical punishment that training and racing over 26.2 miles requires? Even though for the last 5 years I’ve been pushing my body to new physical limits on a regular basis through triathlon and duathlon I still allowed myself to think that this was different. “Isn’t the impact of running the thing that really does the damage?” I kept asking myself.

Even two weeks ago I made a call to Annie, my Coach, to question whether or not I should be doing the Marathon. “I’m not sure I’m ready. We haven’t done any really big mileage. I’m not sure I need to do it” was the gist of my pathetic appeal to her. “You are ready, you will love it” was the unequivocal response. That was the end of the conversation. I guess I’m doing it!

It was really important for me to have that conversation, because to quote Steve Peters “Chimp Factor” theory, “I needed to exercise my Chimp” ( now I’m really getting my metaphors mixed with walls, demons and chimps all present. Mind you, It can be pretty crowded inside my head at times!!) Having “exercised him” I could now move forward. The last couple of weeks leading into the event was positive and energising. By the time the race came around I was genuinely excited.

If Annie says I’m ready then I trust her. I knew that I had been putting in lots of volume, just not that much running and as I was about to find out it didn’t matter that I hadn’t gone over 15 miles in training. The balance of swim, bike and run is really beneficial to the body, building strength, endurance and importantly keeping the mind fresh.

So to the race.

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I explained in my pre race blog that I intended to use the 3:15 pace runner as my guide to help me judge the race and see if I could keep with them until around 20 miles when I would re-evaluate according to how I felt at the time. Well, this plan didn’t quite work out, but my plan B was superb. In chatting to a marshall beforehand he advised me against trying to run with the pacer as he knew that huge groups amass around them and it therefore becomes difficult to get into a rhythm. He suggested laying off behind them so that you could see them but not be obstructed. This made sense but just before the race began the volume of runners mingling around the poor 3:15 pacer was so huge that I couldn’t work my way through them to take up a position behind. Strangely in front of this group was an oasis of calm so I decided to begin in front, take it easy over the first few miles and then see if the pace group came through.

IMG_0996It took a couple of minutes to cross the start-line and then we were underway. Almost immediately there was clear road to run in and so I got straight into a really comfortable rhythm and began the 2nd part of my plan to chat to lots of people. Everyone was in high spirits and we were floating along. I went through the first mile in 7:14 and thought wow that’s very easy. It was a tad quicker than the plan but only just 6-7 seconds ahead. I kept chatting and as we went past the 2nd mile marker I checked again. Oops, under 7 minutes is definitely too quick. It was time to let my new mate, who had run 80 marathons, go and consciously slow down. I realized that in order to get the pace right I needed to focus on what I was doing and so for the next few miles I ignored the rest of the runners and allowed my body to settle into a 7:20 mile rhythm. Once I’d got it by 6 miles I switched my attention again to the brilliant crowds and the other runners. I was loving it and it felt so comfortable that I forgot about the 3:15 pacer somewhere behind me. My heart rate was really under control, my form was relaxed and effortless.

IMG_1003I remembered London, New York and Chicago as races where the crowds were wild and noisy for the whole of the 26.2 miles. Manchester was different. The noise of the crowd support came in waves at different points around the course and this made it even better. As a runner I could really feel the atmosphere building as we headed into the various communities around the course. We’d be able to soak it all up and then we’d then move on into another pocket of calm where we could relax and run through our little mental routines of checking how things were going, before anticipating the next welcome. It was brilliant.

I went through the half marathon in 1 hour 35 mins and whilst I was feeling really good I did have a moment of concern that maybe I’d gone out just a tad too quickly. Was my wall being built somewhere down the road? I allowed this thought to pass as quickly as it had emerged and got back to enjoying the occasion. Whilst I didn’t realize it at the time I did slow up slightly through this 3rd quarter as my only miles over 7:30 were recorded at miles 16 and 18. It was during this phase that I also began to wonder about where the 3:15 pacer was. At times I’d heard various announcers on the course alerting the crowd to the imminent arrival of the 3:15 pacer but id not seen him nor had any sense of just how close behind the group might be. By my crude calculations based on my mile splits I assumed that I was still a few minutes ahead of 3;15 pace. Reaching 20 miles was a key milestone and it gave me a big metaphorical pat on the back as I was still feeling great at this point. Hold on or kick on was the question? My conscious thought was to hold on as I was ahead of where I wanted to be and I’d just keep it going until the last 3 miles. Interestingly though, my splits show that I did indeed kick on as I was back to knocking out each mile in around 7:20 pace. I’d been saving my caffeine gels for the last hour of the run and so taking these at 19 and 23 miles probably gave me that mental boost that kicked me on.

C8aV5v6XYAAwTmVOnce past 21 miles I was counting down. 5,4,3, 2,1 to go and I was still feeling good and holding it all together. I’m not sure counting down helped as I did notice that I was looking forward to stopping more as each mile went by. I was also aware that my hip flexors were tightening, a few blisters on my left foot were building , but there was no sign of fatigue or soreness through my neck or shoulders where I’ve always felt it before. This is surely an indication of just how relaxed I was.

Turning left at 25 miles was euphoric. I could see Old Trafford ahead. We were now on the final stretch. I knew I was going to make it ahead of the 3:15 group and more importantly I knew I had extinguished my demons around the marathon. My body can cope. By pacing well, almost metronomic, by staying relaxed, by getting nutrition and fluids right I had avoided the dreaded wall. This was such a massive step for me. I think I was beaming from ear to ear as I headed towards the barrier section over the last 365 yards. The crowds there were huge and I wanted to thank them all for helping me to achieve a huge PB and an even more important mental accomplishment.

I crossed the line in 3:12:33. I was so happy. Just writing about it now makes me emotional. The Erdinger Alkoholfrei team were there at the finish line and it was truly special to enjoy a pint with Pete and the crew afterwards. My sister Judith had been chasing me around the course giving lots of support at 6,12,16, 25 miles and so it was brilliant to find her after and know that she had shared this important moment with me.

IMG_0999Coach Annie deserves huge credit for getting me prepared mentally as well as physically and I’d also like to mention Alan Murchison for his brilliant nutritional help. My body felt so strong as I knew exactly what to do to keep myself optimally fueled throughout.

With this team around me all I had to do was execute the plan!

Finally I want to make a special reference to my Mum who passed away two months ago. She showed me what real strength, determination and dignity look like during her final days. Observing the way she dealt with this puts marathons into perspective. Thanks Mum, I miss you.

Its time to renew my love affair with the marathon.This time its Manchester.

This weekend I will be running a marathon for the 1st time in 8 years and its 26 years since I ran my first one. Back then, I don’t remember using gels, nutrition was a few jelly babies being handed out in the crowd and a tray of bananas at about 18 miles. Oh how times have changed.

Manchester will be my 8th marathon, but the first where it hasn’t been the focal point of my sporting year and so it will be lovely to take part in a huge event where I’m not putting myself under any pressure to perform. I just want to relax and enjoy the wonderful human experience that marathon running provides.

Ever since my introduction to the marathon at London in 1991 I’ve been captivated by the way that these events bring out the best in people. Runners, spectators, volunteers all come together to support each other towards the achievement of some pretty amazing things. At its most basic level a marathon is a celebration of being alive, of health and general fitness. Beyond this its a brilliant way of inspiring people to achieve extraordinary feats, to encourage us out of our comfort zones and its also grown into an important occasion for charities with millions being raised for great causes.

Back in 1991 I was naïve, young and very fit, being a footballer at the time and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I breezed through the event in under 3 and half hours, soaking up the amazing atmosphere the whole way, comparing it with coming out of the tunnel at Wembley Stadium on Cup Final day, except the noise went on for 26.2 miles. All the sport I’d done until then had been highly competitive so I found the camaraderie of the marathon really refreshing.

IMG_0700I enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d like to see how fast I could go with some dedicated marathon training. Luckily I got a place in New York City marathon 6 months later. I spent the whole summer preparing, then only managed to shave what seemed like a miserly 3 minutes off my time. This seemed like a small reward for a huge amount of effort and a seed was sown in my head that I should be capable of going quicker.

Little did I realize though that 3 hours 25 minutes would remain my PB for at least a quarter of a century.

My 30’s almost disappeared in the blink of an eye before I was ready to try again. This was a period of working really hard to build my career and learn how to be a dad to two beautiful sons. Every minute was taken up with important stuff connected to these priorities and so my sporting ambitions took a bit of a backseat. Becoming 40 was on the horizon and whilst I reject (far too vociferously I can hear my wife saying!) that I had a problem with reaching this age I was clearly keen to prove that it did not mean that I was slowing down. Running a marathon again seemed like the perfect way to show that I was fitter and faster than ever.

Our best mates were living in New York and so we celebrated reaching 40 by heading out there again for the Marathon. Preparations were really frustrating as my body was letting me down. Calf and Achilles were the problem. I’d get over one niggle on the left and then because of overcompensating on the right, this would then go. Looking back and knowing what I now know about the importance of a disciplined recovery regime of stretching, foam rolling, massage I’m not surprised I had problems. Time seemed so precious that every minute was in demand, so I squeezed in runs around other stuff and simply didn’t ever see that recovery could be given priority for a single minute of my time (that is until it became chronic and I was rehabbing under the guidance of a physio). I couldn’t run for the last four weeks leading into the race, but there was never a question that I would pull out even though I knew I was underprepared as I stood on the start line. Surprise, surprise, I really struggled but was very proud of the way I dug in and somehow finished in just 30secs over 4 hours.

I was determined to come back the next year and give it another go when I hoped I’d be in better shape. 2000 was definitely an improvement as I crossed the line in 3hours 35minutes. Not bad, I thought, but I still felt there was a better performance inside me. Three years later in 2003 I was back again for one more shot at New York. Once again I struggled in the build up with the same injuries, tried all kinds of remedies, tried orthotics but couldn’t find a way of being able to train consistently. Frustratingly my calf failed during the race and I hobbled through the last 8 miles to cross the line in 3hours and 50minutes.

Despite all these frustrations, my love of the marathon grew stronger each time and I now wanted to try another of the Marathon Majors. I set my sights on Chicago in 2005. Consistency of training was still an issue due to these niggling injuries but I did manage to get around in one piece and showed some improvement with a 3hours and 37mins result. I loved Chicago and wanted to go back again.  We did, to celebrate my 50th in 2009. This time I knew I was in great shape, injury free for the first time since the days of 1991 and ready to set that PB. If I could do it I’d have been so chuffed to show that you could be faster at fifty than thirty. However, on the morning of the race I woke up with a terrible tummy bug that caused me to pay lots of visits to the portaloos dotted around the course. Despite this inconvenience I finished in 3 hours and 27minutes, beat my time from London all those years ago and only just missed out on my original NY time. So I was faster than the first time and this made me very proud, but I still left a tad frustrated that I didn’t have the new PB to show for it.

Since 2009 I’ve discovered duathlon/ triathlon and this has become my passion. As I head towards Ironman I’m aware that the challenge of the marathon is still there and I will need to be able to cope with the demands of this event at the end of a 2.4mile swim and 112miles on the bike.

So this weekend in Manchester it’s more about reassurance than it is about that PB of 26 years. I know I’m in good shape and I want to run a race that leaves me feeling really positive, knowing that I can execute this distance well and that my body will easily cope with it.

So my race goals are to run an even pace, to relax and enjoy the experience by chatting to as many other runners as I can. To achieve this I plan to join the 3:15 pace group and stay with them until around 20 miles when I can re-evaluate and decide whether I need to back off, kick on or hold firm.

Lets go do it.