ARTICLE: Why We Fail

Yesterday at around 22:00, things changed. Before that time, I had not a chance in Hell of completing the Dublin Marathon in 3:30 as I have targeted.
It's still not a certainty, but now it's a real possibility. Here's what changed.

26 Miles Worth of Concern
A few of my fellow runners had been kind enough to voice various concerns about my marathon. "Did you do long enough training", "are you putting yourself under too much pressure for the first time", "are you doing it for the right reasons", where among those I heard. Emma (Cutts from the Peak Centre, red.) has similar trepidations. My speed has increased faster than anticipated, have we sacrificed endurance?

Why I'd Fail the Marathon
Truth is, though, I have started to share similar concerns. I've trained hard, but have I always enjoyed it? I'm focused on the goal, but am I more focused on my real, long-term, goal just now? Have I in fact preferred training and races I enjoy in front of training and races I should be doing (why was I not doing the Half-marathon, why did I call off injured for my long run, but not the 5k race less than 24h later?). Why why why?

Why am I doing it in the first place? Well, it's easy; I just want to get it done: Hardly a glorious reason. But is that really all, or is there more. Then as I was re-reading "Feet in the Clouds" once again, and turned over the final few pages, I read through a paragraph, and everything become abundantly clear...

Askwith's Epiphany
I harp along about Richard Askwith and his book "Feet in the Clouds" a lot (but it's really that good!).

I was re-reading it for the umpteenth time the other night before bedtime, and this is the passage. Richard is running a long run to his in-laws house with a 30 pound rucksack strapped to his back, he's already failed his burning ambition (the Bob Graham Round) a few times, and now this training run is killing him.

I'll have to paraphrase the "epiphany" that struck him in its entirety so you can appreciate it fully (don't read the italics if you don't want to be spoiled).

If you stop now, said a voice in my head, you will never, ever stand the remotest chance of finishing the Bob Graham Round. All your training will have been wasted. All those years of obsession will have been so much self-deception. Stop now and you might as well call off the attempt and save wasting any more of everyone's time. Never mind all the training you already have in the bank, or all the training that you're still planning to do. This is the only moment that matters. Fail now and you will always fail. Stick to it, and - well, you won't necessarily succeed, but you'll be in with a chance. Sticking with this is the basic, entry-level qualification. You won't in a million years get round if you can't live with this.

Substitute "Bob Graham" for "marathon" or "ultra" or "10k" or whatever challenge you have put in front of you, and this is essential learning for all us. The logic is so simple it's painful to realise: If you can't get up early in the morning to devour 8 kilometres to work (substitute whatever training sessions you struggle to start/finish), you'll certainly never be able to complete a marathon.

Do you Enjoy it?
None of us runners are habitual surrenders obviously, but most of us still have to shed the final vestiges of self-deception. Have I may be trained differently than I should because I didn't want to succeed?

No, of course not, but I still carry that element of self-deception ("oh, it'll be grand, I did a 9 hour hill run three months ago," "I have natural fitness", "I always do better at the races," "The event will carry me high").

Do these phrases sound familiar? They should. They are known as excuses; of the delusional sort.

How to Succeed
"Great for you," you may be thinking, "but what can I take from this?"

There's only really one lesson to be learned, and Helene Diamantides, perhaps the toughest female runner of all times, and the first to beat men outright in a competition (the "Dragon's Back" in Wales, red.), summed it up: "If you're not going to enjoy it, don't bother. It's an awful long time to be miserable."

And there we have it; we are back to Jackie's question: "Are you perhaps doing it for the wrong reasons?"

Well, look back at the reasons above; do you see your own motivations in those? If you do, then you need to learn what I need to learn: On the day, and during most of your training sessions, you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing. The joy of running has to drive you on. Instead of willing the pain, will the pain to double. This is self-conquest.

The Mental Leap
Whenever you’re struggling, be it training, or on the big day, you’ve been preparing for, remember this: All you ever do and all that you have ever done have happened right now. If you can master this moment anything is possible, because all moments are contained in this moment: The now is your life, it’s the only time you can choose.

If you become the master of each moment, then anything is possible. You cannot deal with the pain you will feel on mile 24, but you can deal with the pain you’re feeling right now.

And I plan to go out and enjoy it, take in the crowds, take in the size of the event, and most of all remind myself that I’ll be out there, on the 26 miles, because there is no place I’d rather be.

But reason? And Science?
If you’re thinking “mind over matter, give me a break, this is not the Middle Ages,” then you’ll be delighted to hear that reason has a place in all of this as well. There is something called physical limits, and you have to know your own limitations. Killing yourself does not achieve anything, so make sure you know what you’re capable of.

I’m lucky, working with the Peak Centre, I will know, three days before the marathon, if 3:30 is possible or not. If I produce less than 2mmol/l/min of lactate going at a speed of 12km/hour and I replenish between 50-75% of my carbohydrate expenditure during the marathon, I cannot fail (unless I get injured or choose to run slower because I cannot take the pain). If I produce more than 2mmol/l/min I cannot succeed, and if that is the case, I will readjust my target.

So yes, know yourself, and use science to set reasonable goals if you can. But the lesson above stands clear: If you don’t want to fail (and I don’t), you want to succeed.

Remind yourself of this when the pain creeps in en-route, I want to succeed, remind yourself that all the training you have done, all the preparations, and perhaps all the obsession and anxiety, stand and fall with the choice you are making this very second, this moment.

Then burn the bridge to failure in your mind, as you should do in all aspects of your life when you have the choice between two roads: the one in front of you, and the one behind you. When only the one in front of you remains, you’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other until the end. No matter what. You’re now the Master of the Moment.

Now let’s go put this to the test...


Anonymous said…

Why the rush to do a Marathon so soon after starting to train? What about the danger of achiving everything you want in a year or two and then losing interet.

The marathon was and to a lesser extent now still is something I always though of doing at the age of 40, mainly to have something different to try in the future.

Renny said…
It's a good question. And I've given it some thought. I look at this as my "play year", for the next years I'll have to focus very narrowly on a few target, and a marathon would not be compatible with those for probably the next 4-7 years, depending on what happens.

So I wanted to "get it out of the way". I'm not too afraid of running out of goals as I want to do all the big marathons (Everest, Pike's Peak, Jungfrau etc.), and hopefully ultra-runs such as the Rounds when I get much older, so there is endless possibilities for ever greater challenges.

So I guess this year was just a good time to try it out and then I'll return to it when I'm about 35 or so. But we all know what can happen to long term planning!

Not afraid of losing interest in running though, it's runs (no pun intended!) too deep now :)
Anonymous said…
Seems like a fair approach. Just watch out for the too much too soon career ending injury.

Renny said…
I'm a bit of doofus for looking out for myself really, but hopefully Emma and her pointy needles will keep me on the safe-side throughout!

Arrogance, stubborness, obsessiveness, fanaticism, and being a sore loser are dangerous traits, and I may just have a bit too much of them to go around!