February 22, 2011

"So, did you win?"

"So, did you win?"

This was the question a colleague used to ask me every time he heard I'd done a race on the weekend. I was a runner venturing into triathlon then, slowly stepping up from the sprint, to the Olympic, half Ironman and eventually on to Ironman distance.

With two marathons under my belt by then, a 4:18 and 4:46, I certainly wasn't winning anything. But that wasn't the point: preparing for, and running, a marathon was accomplisment enough. Besides, I enjoyed it: my rewards were an increasing level of fitness, new experiences and a sense of athletic achievement.

My colleague, an inactive middle-aged man, was never interested in hearing about my races, nor how much fun they were. His question was always "So, did you win?" It implied: you don't win, so why bother?

To me it's right up there with the statement runners hear so often (I know I have): But running is so boooring! I've lost count of the number of times people have told me this. It's your prerogative to find running boring but please don't tell that it is as a matter of fact. 

When someone tells me that running is tedious, I don't try to convince them otherwise unless they insist. People should do as they please. However, I'll get into a discussion when pressed. 

A year ago I was working at Whistler Olympic Park as a reporter for the Olympic News Service where I met many other journalists including a European sports reporter, a supernice and helpful guy and we shared a few good laughs. 

When he heard I was a runner, he surprised me by saying that running was boring and an activity that involved absolutely no skills. A big fan of basketball, he said that was so much fun because he could work on improving his game by shooting hoops. (Now that sounds exciting eh?)

As a longtime runner, I begged to differ. Running certainly involves skills, physical and mental ones. And, as timing would have it, I was just editing an excellent article by ironguides coach Alan "Woody" Woodward titled Speed: a key skill for every endurance athlete (Part 1) and (Part 2)

Like with every skill, developing proficiency as a runner takes time and effort, particularly when it comes to your speed. (My marathon times, for example, developed from 4:18 in 1999, to 3:24 in 2003, to 3:07 in 2008). The more consistent you can be with your running, the better it is. To stay consistent with your running, it's crucial to stay healthy and avoid injuries. So make sure you take care of yourself by training wisely.

This season I joined the Titans Tuesday Run sessions, led by the knowledgeable and inspiring Roger Shirt, who has raced every distance from 5km up to ultramarathons and has a 10km PB in the 33 minutes. His Tuesday sessions include four monthly 5km time trials during the 16-week program. 

Time trials are a great way to both develop and measure the progress in our skills as a runner. The clock, while the most concrete, is only one of the ways to judge how you're doing.

Running speed is personal and relative. It's only one aspect of running but one that can really guide your training. It's about having fun, and exploring. It's about patience and consistency.

It's about effort and attitude, rather than time on the clock, though the clock is of course the way to measure our progress.

A few things to consider if you're new to time trials:

How did you feel in the effort? Did you feel like you had something left when you finished? Or did you feel like you ran out of energy way before the end?

Did you run a negative split, i.e. did you run the second half of your run faster than the first half? It's better to start a little bit easier than a little bit too fast. So use that first kilometre to find and settle into your pace.

How do you feel about the time trial? Are you excited and positive? Perhaps a little nervous? A big part of running, especially in sessions where we push ourselves, is our inner dialogue. In other words, what do you think as you start your time trial? 

If you haven't been aware of your thoughts, try to be. It makes a huge difference if you're positive and encouraging yourself, rather than negative. I always talk to myself (not out loud, though) in speed workouts and races, especially when it gets hard. It really helps to focus. 

In a big effort, remind yourself to stay relaxed. Check yourself from top to toe as you run: make a conscious effort to relax your face, your jaw, your shoulders, and your stride. Focus on your breathing. Use it to relax your body and maintain your rhythm.

The great thing about Roger's Tuesday Run sessions is that they draw about 25 runners of varying experience, and therefore speed. When running in a group, it's very important to remind yourself that everyone is different. 

Some runners have lots of experience, others are novice. Some people have an endurance background, others start from scratch. Some have been training consistently for years, others have been more haphazard. We cannot change our genetic makeup, of course a big factor in athletic ability, but we can commit to getting faster if we're so inclined. It's one of the many great things to enjoy about running.

Always focus on your personal goals. Celebrate each improvement, every second, and every lesson learnt. Use other runners to help motivate you. Try to catch them, if it suits your pace, not because it's about beating them but because it's about trying to get the most out of yourself. Perhaps this person will hear you coming, and speed up too. You may both win as a result.  

Try to learn from each time trial. Always focus on something positive, even if you feel your time didn't reflect it. Learn from the things you were not happy with, but don't beat yourself up over it. 

It takes courage to run 5km, or whatever distance, as fast as you can. Showing up for such a challenge is the victory. You win. And, with sessions like these, who could possibly say that running is boring?

Recently, I had an email from that journalist I met at the Olympics, reminding me about our discussion on running. He wrote: I think my general point was to convince you that running is boring and a sport for the retarded. As it turns out, I started running some weeks after my return from Canada and didn’t stop since. And the worst thing about it: I enjoy it and miss it if I don’t have the time to go for at least 1 hour in [his local park].

It wasn't my goal to convince him to take up running (well, maybe a little bit) but I'm very glad he's found out for himself.

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