Running has taught me a huge amount about myself over the eight years since the nineteen stone version of myself first crashed on to a treadmill at Anytime Fitness Edgbaston. During those years, it has blessed me with better mental and physical wellbeing, resilience, problem solving skills and, quite simply, a great amount of joy. But there are times when it tells you things you don’t want to hear, a message reinforced over these past few days listening to a great new book, Running in the Midpack.
Anji and Martin are two people for whom I have the utmost respect. It seems a long time ago, now, that I first spoke with Martin on Marathon Talk (six years ago to be precise) and his commitment to running as a component of better mental health and wellbeing has always impressed me.
His charity, Stormbreak, (of which Anji PR Manager) is a testament to this, with a mission to drive mental wellbeing for children using exercise and equipping them with skills that will prepare them for the journey ahead. He has always been able to bring challenge in situations where mental wellbeing could actually be at risk from approaches to running, something so apparent in the book.
As a coach, author and former teacher, Anji has a similarly powerful impact on the running community, fusing knowledge with compassion in inspiring those around her on their journeys. On a personal level, her humility and ability to remain engaged with the running community during a long period of injury has been truly inspiring.
So what have I learned from the book?
I will, during the coming weeks, write a review of a book which really merits it. However, before doing that I will refer back to the print version as I have so far only listened to it on Audible. However, even on a first listen, I have had so many truths reinforced about running in the midpack.
Lesson 1 - Comparison is a true thief, We're all running in the midpack
For much of the book, you will hear Martin in your head urging you not to press the dickhead button. As a runner, we give ourselves multiple opportunities to do this! He talks about being a slave to Strava, Garmin and the like, constantly comparing yourself to others or to the runner you have been at other times.
The latter is particularly apt in my case. I never wanted to be a sub 3-hour marathon runner but, of course, it did happen back in 2017. Instead. of that ushering in joy and relaxation into my running, it has often paralysed me with fear, especially coming into races. In fact, I’ve progressively hated the build-up to and race day itself as imposter syndrome has followed me quicker than Eliud Kipchoge on a Saturday morning in Vienna.
Of course, I know that I’m not defined as a human being by how quickly I run a marathon and I’m pretty sure that nobody around me gives a monkeys either. However, the monkey has been on my back and I’ve actually loved the last year without having to worry about races.
Of course, with 21 marathons planned this year, it’s time to start enjoying them again.
Lesson 2 - Less is more
I had a horrible run on Saturday morning (it’s Tuesday as I write this). Actually, it was the ‘reverse comparison button’ kicked in with others telling me, ‘wow, you ran 12.5 miles at 7 minutes 40 a mile, stop complaining.’
It wasn’t that bit that was horrible. It was the heaviness of legs, lack of rhythm, and being bereft of any true enjoyment that made it a truly forgettable 90 or so minutes.
As I was running, I was listening to Martin talk about rest… mmm, something was very poetic in that timing. As I ran the final few miles, just relieved at nearly being finished, it hit me like a steam train.
It’s not as if I’ve not been here before. I wrote about my journey towards burnout at the end of 2019 and, without intervention, it feels like I’m inexorably running on the same one-way track.
I cannot expect to be healthy in mind and body when I play them off against each other – my body needs rest in able to be able to train without actually causing me more mental and physical damage.
Beyond that, I get no value from tired run commutes at the start and end of each day when my body and mind are crying out for rest.
In short, it isn’t sustainable for me to be working long hours without rest even before factoring in the desire to run in the region of 60 miles per week.
In order to have even close to a balanced lifestyle right now, work and running must decrease in order for rest to increase, both mentally and physically.
Lesson 3 - my unhealthy relationship with food
It’s well documented that I’ve lived with serious mental illness but I’ve never thought about that in the context of eating disorders. And let me be very clear, that is not where I am in my journey. However, both Anji and Martin raise some challenging and salient points in the book and I’ve had to look myself in the mirror, something I already do far too critically.
As I say earlier in this post, I started my running journey at 19 stone (or 266 lbs or 121 kg depending on how you measure). By the time I ran my first marathon, just over a year later, I was nearly 8 stone (45 kg) lighter and a whole lot fitter. And yes, that weight loss has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on my life.
Now, I never use the scales to tell me my weight, I eat amply, don’t look at labels and typically will have a pretty decent diet. All good you say? Yes. BUT…
This works until you get into situations like Lesson 2 above.
Suddenly, I’m leaving home at 6am and rarely back before 7.30pm. If I’m going to have any time with my wife, cooking properly has suddenly become an afterthought. Moreover, in times of exhaustion, we reach for the sugar cupboard.
Add these factors together and it’s no wonder I’ve put on weight and that’s no fabrication. However, it’s too easy for me to confuse putting on a few pounds with the memory of the nineteen stone obese person who once looked in the mirror, so my response to any weight gain is manifested in extreme mental disappointment.
Beyond this, my response isn’t to work less and eat better, but to train harder and burn more calories – hence the 60 miles target per week! Totally binary and non-scientific.
Let’s be frank, that is wrong on every level and something I am addressing.
So, put simply, I do not have any type of eating disorder but my relationship with food and exercise needs to have better harmony.
Lesson 4 - Follow the GOAT
It has been well documented that the great Eliud Kipchoge runs his recovery runs at a pace on or around 8 minutes per mile.
Remember what I said about being a slave to the Garmin???
If that’s good enough for the greatest of them all, then it’s good enough for me. I’ve spent too long thinking that in order to run where I want to be on race day, I can’t be too far away from it at all in training. That’s a myth.
There will be time for hard runs in training but they are the exception. I did try running at around 8 minutes 30 per mile over a fifteen mile distance on Sunday and it felt difficult, but I’ll be committing to take my foot off the pedal on the majority of longer and recovery runs and making my hard runs count.
Lesson 5 - Trust The Process!
Work hard, have fun, don’t press the dickhead button. Do the right things that work for me to benefit my mental and physical health, my marriage, my job and my running.
Trust the process and don’t be deceived or enslaved to outcomes.
We never have it nailed in the way we think we have. I’m a successful mental health campaigner and runner among many things which God has gifted me in life. It doesn’t mean that I am exempt from getting things very wrong. And recently, albeit in circumstances that would challenge most of us, I have done exactly that.
Huge thanks, therefore, to Anji and Martin for their wisdom and constant commitment to supporting others on their journeys. Right now, they have impacted significantly on mine and hopefully given me a chance to step back and process so much about running, as part of my life, as I prepare for my 21 marathons this year.
In fact, 21 marathons running in the midpack suddenly sounds like a lot of fun.