DIARY: True Grit 10k

I parked my car at the Djouce Woods car park yesterday. Since beginning my half-marathon build-up I have noticed one irritating habit persists in my running stride – and to make it worse – I coached it in myself!

What can go in can get out

In my early days as a running coach I studied the old Lydiard method of hill circuits. These drills are not well-known anymore but their key foci remain part of mainstream technical coaching cues: high knee drive, active push-off and active rear-leg extension with fully locked knee.

Tony Riddle showed me that these are misunderstandings of accurate biomechanical reality but my tendency to insert a rear leg drive and active push-off has not gone silently into the night. Somewhere in my subconscious brain lies a programme called “Rear leg extension – Lydiard 1.0” and when I lose concentration or perception of what I am doing, my subconscious mind runs this again.

So what to do? Unlike what we have been told removing habits is far from impossible – even if they are decades old.

Back to Ballinastoe

After work I returned to the Ballinastoe Woods car park, a mecca for mountain biking. In the morning I had experienced symptoms in my ankle of soreness. Had I gone to a physiotherapist I am confident I would have been labelled with “posterior tibial tendinitis”, “flexor hallucis longus” strain or some other malady related to the tendons and muscles that control the ankle and foot.

I understood, intellectually, that this could not be true and that my subconscious was merely playing out an aggressive response to a badly executed movement pattern during one of the previous days. The problem is that your subconscious mind is not something you can reason with. You cannot stand in front of a mirror and say “I’m not injured, I’m not injured” (well I haven’t actually tried) – instead you have to use more subtle tricks. Problem was: I was done with subtle.

A hard place?

I stepped out of my car and grabbed my watch, then looked back down the tarmac road. 5km north was a small car park where I had started my last barefoot run on this unforgiving surface. This time, however, I was starting further down, and I had to deal with a much worse stretch of surface. As I planned to do precisely 10 km, I would also not benefit from the smoother surface further North.

But I did not care about this. During my car drive I had removed all thoughts of past and future from my mind. The subconscious mind is instinctive. It cannot deal with abstractions such as past and future – they are a distraction. By the time I stepped out of the car there was just me and the road. I did not even think about the nature of the surface – it was familiar after the last run – a previous extreme was now “quite normal” and from the first stride I noticed something remarkable – everything was fine.

Only 6 hours earlier, Jason had looked at me and said “why are you hobbling”. I responded: “I’m not hobbling”. But then I noticed I was altering my walking gait and the left ankle was stiff. The old push-off had returned and my subconscious mind was on high alert.

This is when I hatched my plan: because you cannot reason with the subconscious mind, I had to trick it. The rough tarmac of Djouce Woods was ideal for me – you simply do not push off on surface with so much grit (your foot will get shredded). You also have to maintain posture and rhythm with extreme precision – or you get friction burned or bang your heel or toes. Finally, because the environment poses a great challenge, you cannot accidentally “fall asleep” and revert to old habits – the challenge forces you into the moment.

From the very first kilometre I knew the plan had worked. I had hoped to run the undulating course in sub-50 minutes using my “lowest gear”. In the end I was 40 seconds slower but happy to have kept composure throughout – especially during one session where loose pebbles had been strewn all over a stretch of a few hundred metres. Suffice it to say, there was no push-off. On that note, goodnight…

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