Lose Battles but Win the War: Grand Strategy
"Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the battle and calculating ahead. It requires that you focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it. Let others get caught up in the twists and turns of the battle, relishing their little victories. Grand strategy will bring you the ultimate reward: the last laugh." (The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene, p. 147)"
So sounds the advice of possibly immoral but ultimately brilliant and wise author Robert Greene (also author of the 48 Laws of Power and Art of Seduction) and for the injured runner, sitting alone in his mountain home, looking back at the promise of 2008 and the two intertwening years all the whilst pondering the question: "Where did it all go wrong."
The thing is, I know with great certainty where things have gone wrong. First of all, the continued failure to head Peter Coe's advice in "Better Training for Distance Runners": "The greedier athletes get, the sooner they are spent." (Coe and Martin, 1997, 174).
I should say that this doesn't exclude having many short-term goals along the way for as Coe and Martin also reminds us: "The hunting dog must see the rabbit for an effective chase." (Ibid, 168), but the priorities of the war must always come ahead of the battle.
When I put Battles First
My overall approach since I discovered my error of anaerobic overtraining in July last year, has been sound on principle. I have picked the slower, aerobic and Lydiardesque road, over the quick fix, but I have not necessarily gathered the maturity of mind and the patience that needs to follow this decision.
My injury-disturbed years of 2008 and 2009 are stories of recurring rushes back to contest certain races of peripheral importance to my overall goals: Reaching an international standard of competition. Obviously, I seek these races for the buzz and as some sort of gratification for the hard work done. This would not be an issue if it was not for the fact that these races have all had the opposite effect of sowing doubt and negativity.
Analyze for instance my reaction to my poor start the the Leinster League campaign. In hindsight, it could not have gone differently. I was returning from injury and overtrained due to training errors. My demise was a certainty. My good races appeared only after smaller injuries forced small breaks upon that I could use to capitalise.
This Winter has shown a different but similar error of prioritisation: Once my injuries mounted in mid-Winter, I rushed backed on several occasions in order to be able to complete enough training to fulfil my ambitions for this year's Wicklow Way Trail. Now I sit here with an inflamed tendon and the whole summer season in jeopardy unless I plan properly.
But here is the crux: Neither the summer season nor the Wicklow Way Trail are indispensable parts of the "Grand Strategy". Had I kept this in mind, I would have stopped training at the first sight of trouble. The risk would have been worthwhile for the Wicklow Way Trail alone (after all, completing the full 7 weeks of training was my only hope of competing effectively, in fact, the 7 weeks were already well on the short side of the needed fitness to do what I intended to do). The risk, however, was always unacceptable in the greater scheme of things.
I can yet avert disaster if I make the right choices once this injury clears, let's look at some advice:
How to Get it Right
"We believe it is unwise for athletes to be urged to "train through" a higher-level competition - that is, schedule a competition without making a serious attempt to perform well. The need to simply score points for the team or to be seen in sponsoring firm's new line of sportswear without being prepared to do one's best is a very difficult pill to swallow for an athlete who desires excellence . The really good athletes are neither accustomed to nor interested in making excuses about not performing as well as might have been expected." (Ibid. 171).
How I empathise with this statement and how I have disregarded the advice contained in it. I'm a perfectionist and have a pretty good idea of what I should be capable of doing at any given time from my training. At no time was it clearer to me that you can't "train through a race" than at the 5000m Meet in Fargo. My head just wasn't in the game, and there were many times last season when this repeated. As I hiked my way through the Galtymore race or gave up early in Leinster League races once tiredness took its toll early. Why is this so bad you may ask, consider this advice from Coe and Martin (Ibid, 171):
It is unwise to come to the starting line of a race with just a haphazard interest in attempting to run well; this attitude may occur again when least desired!
How right the authors are once again, as this was exactly what happened. Once I had ingrained a laissez-faire attitude into my system, it started to repeat itself in races that were important to me (not yet in my key races, thankfully, but a virus spreads system by system). This is basically the habit of failure and there is only one answer: Race only when you are mentally and physically fully in the game.
I share this as a word of warning for other runners out there with similar long-term goal and who share my predominantly aerobic approach to training, where years, not months, are necessary to build true improvement. Let me finish with more words of wisdom from Robert Greene:
Your daily battles with them make you lose sight of the only thing that really matters: Victory in the end, the achievement of greater goals, lasting power...
Or in the words of the great Joe Frazier:
It is not the same when a fighter moves because he wants to move, and another when he moves because he has to".
So I must sit down and decide when I move because I feel I have to rather than when I really want to and consider the ramifications it should have for my season 2010. My feeling is they will be considerable.