Wednesday, 24 July 2013

#107 Ask Me Why

Having achieved a relative degree of success in distance running (remember, elitist NOT elite), I'd like to think of myself as a bit of an 'expert' as well as a role model to other runners out there who wish to be the best they can be. I run for myself and my own success, for those who support me and help me succeed, but also for the growth and success of the sport of running. And yes, I am very sure it is still a sport.

Through running, I hope to show that becoming better is possible as long as one is willing to do what it takes to succeed. This is not an easy or enviable task. In distance running, achieving success takes a whole lot of discipline, dedication, commitment, consistency and perseverance. It also requires personal and social sacrifices, self-restraint, occasional pain and discomfort, and the experience and wisdom to learn and re-learn what works for you.

I'd like to share but a few of the important lessons/'rules' I've learned from my own experience running, in hopes that it can help make you a better runner too. In no particular order, three random 'rules' of running...

#1. Nothing tastes as good as skinny FAST feels!

I am 171cm (5'7'') and currently weigh about 59kg (130lbs) making my body mass index (BMI) a very lean yet entirely "normal" 20.2. Normal is considered any value between 19 and 25. Body mass index is calculated by dividing your weight (in kilograms) by your height (in metres) squared; BMI=kg/(m*m)). It is certainly not a perfect measure of individual health or fitness but is a useful measure of population health as well as for getting my point across.

And my point is that if you want to be a better runner (which to me means running faster and further), you have to have a low BMI and body weight. Full stop. When it comes to distance running (success), weight DOES matter and as a rule, the lower (and leaner) the better!

Yes I am skinny. But that is also why I'm as fast as I am today. Know that I did not get this way by obsessively counting every calorie, following a strict diet or refusing to eat certain foods (although I have done all of that in my past before I found running and can attest that it's not a good habit to form). Rather, I simply run and train A LOT. And while I do pay attention to the types and quantities of food I ingest, my weight and my appetite pretty much seems to take care of itself. I eat what, when and how much my body desires and it usually works out pretty well.

Of course diet and proper nutrition are a huge part of running success (which is why I feel the need to include it as one of my rules) and absolutely needs to be carefully considered in order to be successful. But I feel that constantly obsessing about it and dictating what food is "right versus wrong" is mostly a waste of time. To each their own as long as it works for you. However, a little bit of self-restraint and the use of will-power is necessary from time to time and running long distances in not an excuse to eat everything and all in sight (despite what was written in 'Once a Runner': "If the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn..." Frankly, you nor I run nearly enough to get the furnace that hot).

Diet should be considered synonymous with fuelling for your runs and workouts. And as with filling your car, some fuel is obviously better than others. Eating higher quality food means feeling better before, while and after running. You don't have to do this all of the time, but the 90% rule (eat well at least 90% of the time) is one I generally feel works and will go far to maintain your sanity, as well as your desired shape and weight.

I also feel strongly that using running (or any form of exercise) as a means to control and modify body shape is inherently dangerous. Although it was certainly one of the original reasons why I started to run; it has long ceased to be a reason I continue and am committed to run now. Eat to run; don't run to eat.

#2: No man runner is an island.

I used to run almost entirely on my own. I would decide each day how far and how fast I wanted (if at all) to run and would (usually) do it. In the short term, I got better as I continued to run more. But eventually I hit a plateau and couldn't seem to get any better no matter how far or how fast I would run. So what did I do? I joined a group/club.

Running with a group is humbling. You quickly realize how little you actually know about what you are/were doing or where you were going. By running and training with others, you gain access to a wealth of experience from those who have likely also been in your shoes (not literally of course) and have made the same mistakes you have. You will quickly learn what more you need to do as well as what you should probably no longer do and will likely begin to see improvements very quickly.

If you are lucky, you will find mentors and peers who wish to share with you their own interpretations of what it takes to succeed and who will genuinely be interested in seeing you accomplish your goals. Just as world records are rarely (if ever) accomplished without a rabbit or other world-class athletes, training in a group is a great way to reach and then exceed your own limits, both physical and mental.

Having a group means having like-minded individuals constantly push (or pull) you to be better. To help set and establish realistic goals and then train together to achieve them. They become a source of external motivation and provide new incentive to keep improving. They help ground your expectations but also heighten your ambitions.

I've found that my own expectations as well as those from others have definitely increased over time. This means that I no longer just run for myself or my own sense of accomplishment, but rather I am motivated (dare I say pressured) to perform at a higher level based on the expectations of others. This is both a curse as well as a blessing. It's great to have external pressure driving me to be better and makes me want to perform consistently and to my best ability. On the other hand it can also be stressful and intimidating to always 'have to' perform and do well based on the expectations of others. Some people thrive off this type of pressure and are said to have a high 'ego orientation.' In a sport as social and diversified as running, we all have some degree of ego that needs to be satisfied. Running with a group will both support and satisfy that ego and give but another reason to succeed.

Of course, it helps to find a group that not only help you succeed in running, but that you also get along with well and who become a close part of your social circle. I have indeed been fortunate to find just that group and am forever indebted to the 'Black Lungs' for helping me become the runner I am today and for motivating me to be an even better runner tomorrow.

In addition to those who directly help you succeed (your teammates, training partners, coaches and competitors), a huge amount of credit and appreciation is owed to those who support indirectly. Friends, family, partners and pets who tolerate the tremendous amount of time and energy that goes into training.

#3 Moderation Consistency is the key to life running success

This rule is perhaps the most important, but also the most difficult to explain.

Quite simply, you need to be consistent with your training in order to be successful. Consistency doesn't mean running every day but it does mean approaching each day with a runners mindset (think like an elite, even if you aren't one) and seeing how your actions impact and influence your running and training goals. What you eat, how long you sleep, and how you deal with stress, illness and injury, are all important parts of the long-term consistency that is vital for running success.

Approach distance running as a long-term commitment (it takes approximately seven years to fully peak and reach your potential) and while you can't ignore or undermine the importance of daily and weekly training; it is really the monthly and yearly consistency that matters most. Setting realistic yet challenging short and long-term goals and creating a plan to stick to them is of utmost importance. Set-backs will happen and you need to accept that not every run or workout will go to plan. Missing a day, or even a week of training is not the end of the world. Only by having a long-term focus and an attitude of perseverance will you be able to deal with the short-term grind that is necessary to experience long-term success.

Finally, a good and well thought out training program is essential for achieving success. If you want to accomplish something, you need a plan of action. A training program is just that and will incorporate all of the fundamental aspects of a good plan (easy, aerobic, long, tempo, intervals, hills, etc.) in a logical and progressive pattern that maximizes success (while minimizing risk) over weeks, months and even years of training. Easy and recovery days are as, if not more, important than the hard/intensity days so be sure to take it easy when you can and enjoy it! You can't run hard/fast all the time (or even most of the time) so be realistic about your goals and expectations and when necessary, seek the advice of an experienced other (see rule #2 above).

And so, there you have it. Three random 'rules' of running success. I hope you found them insightful and potentially useful for your own training. All the best and happy running.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

#106 Hey Jude

I recently came upon this piece of writing I had done several months ago which at the time was written for a submission in the Longboat newsletter (but never published). I read it today and felt it was worth posting here as it does some justice as to the reasons why I run (which I am particularly fascinated with after waking up at 6am to 30 degree humidity and then running 11k of tempo pace). I've copied it below unedited but also added a final section. I hope you enjoy it.

What motivates me…

Like many people, I started running as a means to lose some extra weight and get in better "shape." The first time I recall running (for the strict purpose of running), I attempted to do a country loop around my home in Ingersoll (about 5k in total) and made it about half way before I was bent over on hands and knees desperately breathing air into my throbbing lungs. I walked the rest of the way home. Never a quitter, I tried again the very next day and made it ever so slighter farther. I caught my breath, resolved to walk for a bit, and then started jogging again. I ritualistically repeated this exercise for days, perhaps weeks, until I could make it around that loop without stopping. I remember the first time I did, and although I have no idea how long it took, it was among the proudest things I had achieved to that date. And when I had done that, I simply decided to keep running and do the loop twice!

Later that year I joined the Cross Country team in High School and was convinced I had finally found my calling in sport. For two years I upped my mileage, made some great friends and even won a regional title or two. I wasn't amazing by any standard, but I loved what I was doing and worked my ass off to get better. At some point my dedication to running became highly problematic as I struggled with some very serious and significant physical and psychological issues surrounding body image, self-esteem and eating behaviour. I ran because I had too not because I wanted too and at some point was forced to stop running entirely less I continue to hurt myself.

After high school and whilst struggling with the issues above, my running career took a rather erratic route in which I didn't run once during the first two years of university. Then in third year after gaining the freshman fifteen and an additional sophomore several, I came back to running as a means of finding myself again. I began to run regularly but certainly not seriously. After running a few races, I could see my progress unfold and I liked the idea that I was getting better. I kept at it but my commitment to running wavered and was wildly inconsistent (the ultimate key to distance running success). In 2009 I moved to Toronto to pursue my Master’s degree (in Exercise Science at U of T) and once again I began to take running more seriously. I wanted to continue to improve and only when I no longer did so on my own, did I make the best (running) decision of my life…I joined a local running club (the Longboat Roadrunners).

For almost two years, I trained with the club and found like-minded individuals who shared my passion and pushed me to achieve my goals. I got better, A LOT better, and seemed to set a PB in every race I ran. I had a solid group to train with and these guys became my closest friends and a kind of family. At the same time, I was conducting my Master’s thesis exploring psychological aspects of physical activity adherence and used my connection with the running club to explore the physical culture of distance running. In August 2012, I defended my thesis entitled: ‘In it for the Long Run: An Ethnography of Psychological and Social Benefits of Distance Running.’ In the Fall of 2012, I began teacher’s college at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), also at U of T, where I intend to receive my Bachelor of Education (BEd) degree and one day teach secondary science and biology.

2012 also continued to impress in terms of my running success. I've set impressive PB's in almost every distance I attempted this year. I ran 16 and change in a 5k, 34:20 in the 10k, 57:15 for 10 miles and an impressive 1:13 for the (Scotia) Half (which I am particularly proud of) as well as a 1:51 for 30k at ATB. I broke 2:50 in my first ever marathon (STWM in Oct 2011) and then took an unprecedented 13min off that time to run a 2:37 in the Spring (Goodlife 2012) and then bettered that number slightly (2:36) this Fall (at Hamilton).

Quite simply, numbers motivate me. They just don't lie! You are only ever the runner your numbers say you are. In a sport that consists of covering distance as fast as possible, little more matters than the clock. Running well isn't easy. It's actually incredibly difficult. It takes time, patience, commitment, organization, sacrifice, suffering, and the support of friends and family. And yet running is unique in that the outcome is no more and no less than what you put into it. The time and energy dedicated to training can be as much or as little as one can afford but the result will reflect that to a brutally honest degree. There is a pure sort of satisfaction knowing that you only get what you deserve. You cannot lie or cheat your way around it. Prefontaine probably said it best when he said: “You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.

People run for a variety of reasons: health, fitness, weight-loss, charity or a cause, career, escape, freedom, fun, pleasure, personal satisfaction, socialization... the list goes on and on. No reason is better than another. Mine is simple: I run to run faster!

Epilogue: July 16th, 2013

Yesterday I returned from a weekend away in and around Utica, NY for the running of the Boilermaker 15k road race. This was hands down one of the best running events I have ever been part of and was by far much better than my first Boston earlier this year (which didn't exactly go to plan on a number of fronts). The weekend was centred around the running of the race, which turned out to be a challenging course on a hot day. Luckily the overwhelming support of the local crowds (in addition to all that training I do) led me to put forth a personally pleasing performance of 52:04 good for 45th place overall and top Canadian. But the reason that those three days were as amazing as they were was because of the people I shared them with. Black Lungs Toronto, and more specifically the members of that group, the Black Lungs, are something very special. It means a great deal to me to be part of something that is so much more than a group of guys running in circles trying to get faster. The commitment we show to each other and the camaraderie we share has become among the top reasons I now run and provides me with the motivation to get up and run every day and continue to strive to be the best I can be. Of course I do it for myself (for the results, the sense of personal accomplishment and pride, self-actualization, etc, etc.), but I also do it for them.