DIARY: Review 2011

Among the runners I worked with last year, one could justifiable leave the season with a lot of disappointment and the knowledge that his coach had let him down.

Thankfully this runner is myself, another proof that being a self-coached athlete can be extraordinarily difficult. Where a “3rd party coach” has perspective, you have emotion. Where your coach sees unacceptable risks, you see worthwhile gambles. A similar cycle of events as 2009 and 2010 was not met with the hard wisdom earned from those years but rather with the same propensity to repeat errors and this time the consequences were harsher: by the end of the year I had completed only 2160km (1342 miles) of training.

Year on year
My performance has plateaued over the last few years and you do not need to be a super coach to figure out why:
  • 2009 (mileage): 3023 km (1878 miles)
  • 2010 (mileage): 2980 km (1852 miles)
  • 2011 (mileage): 2157 km (1341 miles)
There are no quick-fixes or magical formulas out there to make up for such a drop in mileage, despite the number of charlatans around claiming the opposite. My year also had a terrible rate of consistency as I started by running five of my ten highest mileage weeks ever, within a five week period (the first five!). In twenty-five out of the year's fifty two weeks, I managed 35km or less weekly mileage. Five weeks featured zero mileage when the injury was at it’s very worst. Looking through the year, I would classify 14 weeks as “proper training”, not an impressive return.

This misfortune may yet lead to a fairy-tale ending, however, I saw that I retained 82-minute half-marathon form many month's past the beginning of my injury spell and today my fitness and training capacity seems to be returning at a storming rate.

Racing statistics
In terms of racing, I did more than my training would really have warranted, basically doing a race per week of proper training. Unsurprisingly, I was rarely effective and my overall haul does not compare well to the previous years:

Races/Yr 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
# 41 16 27 26 14

The count of 2007 races is not something for a runner with competitive ambitions to aspire to but this year turned out worse than even the plantar-haunted 2008 which had marked a previous low-point in my fortunes. 2009 and 2010, while frustrating, at least had the redeeming qualities of being slow progressions from that damaging year.

Adding to the story, five of my fourteen race happened during the brief period of 27th November to 11th December when the La Santa Running Challenge (another great highlight to be fair) kickstarted me again, leaving the overall year barren both in terms of racing and training.

The year past did not turn into a complete wash-out even so, my personal highlights being completing my first ultra in spite of the lack of training, recording a 5 mile PB, running my half-marathon PB close weeks after the ultra and taking the silver medal with our Wicklow Way Relay team. The latter three were bittersweet as the half-marathon and 5 mile showed how much more could have been had things been different, and the relay, while exhilarating, would have meant more if I could have added 100% of my potential to the 100% effort I put in on the day.

In terms of coaching, there were so many positives but I’ll cover that in a separate article at some point. A final highlight from a non-competitive perspective was acting as team manager for the Snowdon team, a rewarding experience and welcome excuse to stop over at a race that has come to be part of my annual cycles, injured or not.

Madman in training
Training rhymes with constraining for a reason and my most damaging flaw as an athlete is the inability to accept deviations from a set plan even when my physical condition has changed from the outset. Looking back over the autumn weeks leading into the Dublin Novice Cross-Country, a dismal performance by athletic standards, you see a runner who has just shrugged off an injury and is recovering his fitness suddenly doing two-three quality workouts per week (mainly cross-country specific tempos, intervals and the Lydiard hill circuit).

This training would have been fully appropriate had the season gone exactly as sketched out at the beginning of 2011 but not for a runner who had the period March-August largely disrupted by injury. Unsurprisingly I began to run some decent times in training and some strong workouts. In reality, this was just the last flicker of  my winter condition being consumed and by the time the Novice came around only a fatigued shell was left to hobble injured around the course of the Novice race. If was a race car at the outset of the year, the bright sparks of August were just the flames from the wreck being set alight by the roadside.

Either way, the cross-country races marked a premature end to the autumn season while also set the scene for my most fortunate chain of events of 2011.

A complete understanding of injuries
In terms of learning and experience no year ranks higher than 2011. I have broadened the scope of my knowledge far beyond the field of running which has proved extremely valuable as publications focusing on one event tend to be somewhat limited once they depart into areas that is not their key expertise (such as nutrition, injury prevention, psychology and health).

Rarely a day passes now without me sending a mail off to some expert or scientist and every week usually adds a few more books to the “read” list. My meeting with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, Antony Riddle and Hagen Stroh particularly helped redefine my understanding of the nature of chronic injuries and illnesses. Where our modern paradigm has become blinker-visioned in treating almost all conditions as structural problems, science really suggests most causes are purely functional and eminently curable. But that is a topic for an upcoming article.

Where to go from here?
The natural reaction would be to throw the baby out with the bath-water at this stage. Three years with little improvement and many injuries would suggest a potential that will remain unfulfilled and a body to injury-prone to handle the sport, but the truth is different.

Since meeting Antony, my body is stronger than ever and getting better every day. My new understanding of the causes of injuries means I can counter and repair almost on-the-fly and a return to running has been the obvious result. By embracing Somatics and Resistance Stretching, and the emerging scientific field of psychoneuroimmunology (ouch!), I have the opportunity to almost completely nullify the negative physical and mental effects of aging until an extremely advanced age. With a refined understanding of nutrition and training, I am better placed than ever to capitalise on this new platform.

Weathering “runner’s low”
Personally I feel like a general who has lost most of his battles but remains almost confident of winning the war. When I checked my running diary for the figures for 2011 I noticed that I had not filled out a single entry since 18th of September, such was my despondency after the last injury-blow. I had gone off running, literally, in what was probably a low ebb in my enthusiasm for the sport.

Now, on the other hand, enthusiasm is fully restored, and in many ways a change of mindset has brought it back to levels it had not reached since the early years when everything was exciting and no cynicism surrounded my view of the sport.

In terms of pure numbers, I wrote down 15 goals for 2011 and achieved 3 (and these were more process focused goals). Athletically, 2011 was a failure on almost all counts. But I feel it will be a landmark year when I look back once upon a time. No training I did this year could have handed me as big an advantage for the future as the things I had to go discover in my search for why the injuries kept recurring. The answers seemed obvious, but they are not (if they were more traditional treatments would have worked, they did not). I see that as more valuable than a PB or race victory in many ways: I never accepted the frailty of my body as a “de facto” and never stopped searching for the true explanation regardless of how many specialists had to capitulate. In the end I found my answers; now I have to retain that wisdom and apply it to make 2012 the success 2011 could not be.

Ron Daws believed that every able-bodied man has the capacity to run sub 2:30 for the marathon. Keith Livingstone confirmed that it was not seen as an extraordinary feat in his time and I agree. Functional, environmental and societal problems constrain our ability to utilise this level of talent but anyone who could overcome those problems and be trained right should set their aims very high indeed and I am no different. 2012: here we come.