Acceptable in the Eighties

A very unscientific attempt to go back in time

Month: April, 2013

Not too much to report on the training front this week unfortunately. As my coach pointed out on the phone once, saying that distance runners are constantly ‘on the edge’ is not just a marketing slogan – when you’re training hard you’re pretty susceptible to illness and injury. I picked up some sort of virus last week and wasn’t able to run at all for about five days. I’m back running tentatively now and still hope to run BUCS 10,000m next week, but haven’t done much training to write about here.

In the meantime, here’s a brief article I wrote outlining my thoughts on Mo Farah’s appearance in the London marathon for anyone who still wants something to read.

Last Sunday, Mo Farah ran half of the London Marathon in 61.34. If he’d been in a half marathon race would have put him twelfth on the British all-time list, and made him over three minutes faster than any other British runner for a half marathon this year. In normal circumstances, we don’t begrudge people making large amounts of money for doing things considerably better than everyone else. In fact, there are few professions where you can actually objectively prove that you are the best in your field. Distance running is one of the few where you can, and where you can measure your superiority in seconds (and minutes in this case), and yet Mo’s appearance in London has attracted a blizzard of ire and gibberish, both from the media and from fellow athletes. He has been labelled a “money grabber” by numerous journalists as well as by Paula Radcliffe (who lives in Monaco for tax reasons) and Michael Johnson, who once injured himself having accepted a large amount of money for racing Donovan Bailey over 150m.

Criticising Mo Farah for running half of the London Marathon is especially short sighted given the lack of scrutiny given to athletes endorsements more generally. Mo has looked awkward in interviews all week as he’s been repeatedly forced to justify his decision to run and to reassure the public that it was not about the money. When he appeared on billboards with Usain Bolt and Richard Branson in the summer, endorsing broadband, I don’t remember him being made to squirm in front of TV cameras as he explained that that wasn’t about the money, that he was merely a passionate believer in fast internet connections and that he saw appearing in an advert as a ‘learning experience’ that could afford him a greater understanding of what it felt like to wear a fake beard.

Two British Olympians – a boxer and a gymnast seemingly forgotten now that we’ve almost reached the games’ one year anniversary – still grin out from Subway windows advocating their ‘personal best’ sandwiches. Jessica Ennis received very little criticism for using her wholesome image to rehabilitate that of BP during the Olympics, whose website also read ‘in honour of BP’s deep (a Freudian slip if ever I saw one) ties to the U.S we proudly announce our sponsorship of the United States Olympic Team’. Nike managed to turn Tiger Woods’ infidelity into a marketing campaign in 2010, and waited until the last possible moment – long after there was incontrovertible evidence of his drug taking – to drop Lance Armstrong. Given the unscrupulous nature of many endorsement deals, you’d hardly have been surprised if they’d tried to make that one work out in their favour too (i’d have gone for ‘Just Get Away With It. For Over a Decade’).

Sporting careers are short, and it is usually accepted that sportsmen and women have to make their money while they can, even if it involves endorsement deals with fast food outlets and oil companies. Mo’s appearance in London – as attested to by the vast numbers of people who turned out to watch – was above all else an endorsement of running, in the city in which he grew up and in an event which supported him in his early days when there was no guarantee he would make it to the heights he has now reached. Watching Mo’s beautifully manicured stride as he clipped along with the leaders on Sunday, I was with Brendan Foster, who is generally right about these things. ‘Mo’s the double Olympic champion’ he said, ‘he can do what he wants.’ Let’s turn our attention to the kinds of endorsements – McDonald’s would be a start – that are actually likely to decrease the likelihood of us getting more kids living healthy lifestyles and playing sport. Farah is a role model, not a money grabber.

Most of the discussion about how to improve distance running standards assumes that the problem essentially comes down to training harder. From the conversations I’ve had with my coach, and from reading Charlie Spedding’s book, though, much of the difference seems to come down to focus. In an e-mail, Charlie told me ‘I think a lot of people from my generation like to say that your generation don’t train hard enough, but I really don’t know if that is true. For all I know, you might be training too hard’.

The ‘focus’ and ‘commitment’ Charlie writes about are not the same thing as ‘motivation’, which today seems to be characterised primarily by Nike adverts, ‘running playlists’ on itunes and youtube videos – that is, things that last about three minutes. The ‘focus’ Charlie refers to requires a bit more time. It means deciding what you want to do and then getting on with it. It means deciding to run twice a day, and accepting that running will become the punctuation to your day, the two bookends between which everything else fits. My flatmates used to correct me when I told them I’d meet them later because I “had to go for a run.” “You want to go for a run”, they’d say. They got bored of correcting me eventually. You don’t need music or slogans to motivate you if you accept that you’re going to go out every time you wake up and whenever you get home at the end of the day; it just happens. The ‘focus’ Charlie is talking about is different and is, I think, lacking from a lot of people’s training. As he puts it in his book, before he changed his mindset, ‘although I had an attitude that made me diligent in my training, it wasn’t the same thing as having an attitude that would make me successful in my running.’ Luckily, Charlie’s advice about focus and commitment happens to involve going to the pub.

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This is an exercise anyone can do (you don’t have to be in a pub, but it helps). It makes you accountable to yourself, and it gives you something to refer back to. And it’s pretty simple. Get yourself a pad of paper and write “What do I want?”, “Why do I want it?” and “How much do I want it?” If you don’t know the answers to those questions, Charlie reckons, you’re unlikely to get the most out of yourself competitively. I’ve done my own version for this summer, but it’s not going on here. It’s one thing being accountable to yourself and quite another to make yourself accountable to eightlane message board posters! Having target races doesn’t mean that you don’t run other races, or that you don’t run the other races hard, but that you aim to really put pressure on yourself in the races where you want to get results.

I made the pilgrimage down to Sutton Coldfield this week for the national twelve stage road relays, running a pretty lonely 11th leg 48 seconds slower than my coach ran in April 1981, and identical to the second to Dougie’s time on leg nine. We’ve clearly been spending too much time running together in the meadows and, as our mate Mark puts it, ‘become physiologically the same bloke’. We were eight seconds apart at the Scottish road relays, too. I suppose it’s not a problem if we keep running the same times, but we could do with both running a bit quicker in the next few weeks. The twelve stage has more or less remained the same whilst the rest of the running landscape has changed around it – a tent city gradually appearing in the morning, with club flags competing for space around the changeover area, then runners battling for over four hours for their teams. As one of the Costorphine AC runners put it, ‘I don’t want to hear of any example of anyone being able to remember their own name within ten minutes of finishing a leg!’

Training wise this week was fairly similar again, although it should be noted that according to my coach’s diary the winter lasted even longer in 1981 than it did this year. His entry for the 24th of April is ‘5 miles alone – deep snow!’ He ran 78 miles, I ran 73. The previous week I ran 84, he ran 94. I’ve listed my last two weeks below for anyone interested.

Sunday: 11 miles including long leg at Scottish road relays.
Monday: AM 6 miles steady PM 6 miles steady.
Tuesday: AM 4.5 miles steady. PM 9 miles including 8 x 1km in under three minutes with one minute recovery.
Wednesday: 10 miles steady.
Thursday: AM 5 miles steady. PM 10 miles acceleration run. First mile in 6.30, then 10 seconds faster per mile.
Friday: AM 6 miles steady. PM 6 miles steady.
Saturday: AM 6 miles steady. PM 4.5 miles steady.
Sunday: 18 miles steady with Dougie.
Monday: AM 6 miles steady. PM 6 miles steady.
Tuesday: AM 4.5 miles steady. PM 9 miles including 5 x 1km (100 jog recovery), 1 mile hard on the track.
Wednesday: 6 miles steady. (Didn’t get out until 10pm, due to having to hand in 7,000 words of essay on Thursday!)
Thursday: AM 5 miles including 10 mins of 100m hard every 30 seconds. PM 5 miles steady.
Friday: 3 miles easy.
Saturday: 10 miles including leg in 12 stage relays.

Last week I included a few statistics which illustrate the extent to which standards have dropped, but sometimes numbers can be hard to relate to. So here’s an example of what a local road race used to look like:

This is the kind of race where you could run under thirty minutes for 10km and be nowhere. It is, as Hunter S. Thompson would have put it, a race run by men who would rather be shot out of a cannon than squeezed out of a tube. Races don’t tend to look much like this any more – try going down to your local park run if you want to see an extreme example. You just don’t get vests like the one Bernie Ford is wearing today either.

Tim Hutchings, who is in a far better position than I to comment, wrote an article in Athletics Weekly last week in which he lamented the fact that many of today’s better runners are under-raced compared with the runners in the ‘80s. I think this is partly down to a fear of being found out. A lot of people tend to only race when they’re in really good form now, rather than using races as a way of finding form. Charlie Spedding writes about not being scared to race in his book ‘From Last to First’, much of which is concerned with the mental approach to running. Rather than attempting to avoid racing people who are better than you, or being scared to compete, he advocates seeing racing better runners as an opportunity rather than something to be feared.

Sometimes you have to be a bit smart about this, though, as I found out last week. Running a 10km in an extremely windy Grangemouth, it’s probably best not to try to run away from people on a stretch into the wind, no matter how much you’re trying to change the way you approach racing. I found this out last weekend, and was beaten by two of a front group of four as a result. I gave it a decent go, and both of them should have beaten me on paper (one was second in the Scottish Cross Country this year and the other has the Commonwealth Games standard for the marathon already), but I would probably have given them a better race had I been more sensible.

Training can never really quite replicate races if you’re trying to really put out a hard effort. Running is a pretty simple sport – along with boxing it corresponds most closely to the basic ‘fight or flight’ response (some have tried to combine the two, but it is not recommended http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBxlTpkvQuk). I ran the Scottish six stage road relays yesterday, and after the first leg, when teams start to get spread out, runners are left constantly in the position of both hunter and hunted. You can’t replicate the adrenal reaction to this in training. I spent the first half of my leg chasing down the second placed runner and the second half worrying if there was anyone else chasing from behind. Given that the race was in Livingston, a new build town of underpasses, flyover bridges and tight corners between housing estates, you were never entirely certain that you weren’t about to be overtaken. My club, Costorphine, claimed the silver medal, the first time we’ve won a medal in this race, so it was a good day.

For those interested, below is the last week in March for both me and my coach, including the previous Sunday. We both raced twice, once in a relay.

My training:

Sunday: 11 miles including 3rd in Grangemouth 10km (31.03).
Monday: AM 5.5 miles steady PM 5.5 miles steady.
Tuesday: AM 4.5 miles steady PM 9.5 miles including 3km (2 laps jog), 5 x 1km (200 jog) on track with Matt Gunby. Hard work after Sunday.
Wednesday: AM 10 miles steady.
Thursday: AM 4.5 miles steady. PM 7 miles fartlek.
Friday: AM 4.5 miles steady. PM 4.5 miles steady.
Saturday: 4.5 miles easy.
Sunday: 11 miles including long leg in Scottish Road relay championships (29.29, started 3rd, finished 2nd).

Total for week up to Sunday: 72 miles.

My coach’s training:

Sunday: 14 miles inc (illegible) in Kendall Road Race – poor, 50.45
Monday: 6 miles with Barry
Tuesday: AM: 5 miles alone – tired. PM 4 miles 21.30 alone.
Wednesday: 10 miles – good.
Thursday: 10 miles.
Friday: AM 6 miles. PM 7 miles.
Saturday: 16 miles including leg at Gosforth Relays 15.24.
Sunday: AM 16 miles alone, tired. PM 4 miles OK.

Total for week up to Sunday: 78 miles.