Running Happy: Realistic Goals

This update might be controversial. Not sure. It’ll be interesting to see what people think.

Here’s the thing; I’m pretty sure I’m going to run slower on marathon day than I originally said I intended to…but on purpose.

Not something you hear runners admit to everyday. And I promise I’m not sandbagging.

When I first got the ballot place I’d already been thinking about targets for my next marathon. I ran 4:10 at Richmond and immediately decided that meant my next one should be all about the sub 4. It’s only 10 minutes, I thought. I’d taken 21 off my previous time at Richmond, what was 10 minutes?

So that was my intention heading into training. I worked out all the paces for the different sessions and it all seemed pretty doable, if a little on the higher end of my capabilities. Eager to check I could run at the required pace I added some mid-week 8 milers at race pace, scheduled for a seemingly far distant 4 weeks into the plan when I believed (optimistically) that I would be back at full fitness and coping tremendously with this new way of training; 5 sessions a week with speed work and hills a-go-go.

Yes. Well. The road to wherever is paved with good intentions and all that.

There have been two issues with my original plan. My body and my brain. Let’s deal with the easier of the two first; my poor old knackered body.

It just doesn’t like this much impact. I’ve tried a few times to train 5 times a week now, and my body just does not like it. I think it’s because I’m not very well behaved when it comes to getting my strength work in, so I’m just not strong enough to cope with the extra training load. Although I’ve been getting the distance in, my long runs have been slower than during my last marathon training block – partly by design but mostly from necessity. And needless to say those race pace 8 milers have not materialised thus far.

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As well as my stiff heels and ankles, I’ve been suffering a little bit with the return of a creaky (and to be totally honest with you, crunchy) right knee which has been a problem off and on for years. It’s usually always the same type of discomfort in the same place and I know how to deal with it. It doesn’t stop me running, I just wonder a bit more each time about whether I should start a sweepstake for what age I’ll be when it gets replaced for a bionic one.

This time however the pain has started to refer to a different area, I suspect just from a tired muscle that has just been chilling out doing nothing up to this point and that I need to roll out as soon as I can work out how (it’s in a super awkward position for rolling!).

So yes; as far as the physical issues go, a sensible return to a 4-run week with more strength work incorporated is probably in order. Honestly at this point 5 runs a week just feels like punishing myself for the sake of it – maybe when I’ve got the strength up a bit I’ll be able to try again.

Hopefully that will sort out the body part. Or body parts?! Not body parts in a Burke and Hare way though, just to be clear. Although they probably didn’t spend much time sorting them out…but I digress…

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The trickier part to sort out is what’s happening in my brain.

For those who don’t know, I had a bit of an unhappy time of it last Spring with a period of extremely high anxiety. It was brought on by an ongoing stressful situation and when the stressor was removed (or rather when I was removed from the stressor) I was left in a state of moderate depression which thankfully I’m now out the other side of.

The anxiety part however never quite went away. I’m naturally quite an anxious person, or at least a person who holds myself to pretty high goals which can be a cause of anxiety if I think there’s a chance they won’t be met.

So yeah, marathon running is all kinds of sensible for me with my bad knee and my stupid anxious brain, especially when you factor in a scary new goal.

Since the new year I’ve been trying to work out how to properly deal with my anxiety. The situation that knocked me out last year was directly related to a specific set of circumstances and once I was away from them the anxiety gradually faded into the background. This didn’t teach me a better way to cope with future stressors, however, and at the start of this year I could feel panic starting to rise again every so often. Not exactly overwhelmed, but to borrow a phrase from Ten Things I Hate About You if I may, just a bit ‘whelmed’.

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During a general health check at the doctors last month I mentioned how I’d been feeling and was recommended to look up a CBT book as clearly there was still work to do. I thought I better had, having no desire to return to last year’s fun times alternating between being almost catatonic one moment and screaming at people the next.

I found a straightforward CBT book and am working my way through it, but that’s not what I want to tell you about. As I was rooting around in the self-help section on Amazon I came across a book by Derren Brown (yep, that Derren Brown) called ‘Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine’.

Well, with a title like that how could I resist? I downloaded it to listen to, devoured it and am now on my second listen.

It’s brilliant. It’s about taking ancient philosophies (including Stoicism, the forerunner of CBT) and using them to understand and control your reactions to situations to reduce anxiety and frustration and stay, if not constantly happy, then at least on a more even keel. It’s funny and clever and sensible and helpful. And it’s such a simple concept. So simple, in fact, that I got a bit sad that I hadn’t learned this years ago and been happier for it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I won’t suddenly turn into a Zen like being who never gets pissed off about anything, but it’s a good place to start. If you have any issues around anxiety, especially if your anxiety has to do with needing to feel in control, I do urge you to look it up.

What does Derren Brown have to do with marathon training? Well, a big part of the book talks about goal setting. Specifically the positive thinking entrenched, you-can-do anything-if-you-just-believe-enough style of goal setting, which he argues sometimes leads us to cling to unrealistic goals against all common sense or evidence to the contrary.

In this particular case, I have a goal to run a sub-4 hour marathon. That’s fine, and it can stay a goal for as long as it takes to achieve it. But if I decide that it’s my only goal for London when common sense and my right knee are telling me that now may not be the time, I risk two things. I risk properly knackering my body up, and I risk aiming too high for my current ability and then feeling bad on the day if I fail to run a time that starts with a 3.

Far more sensible, Derren and his merry band of philosophers suggest, to make a small alteration to how you frame your goal which allows you to be human, and allows for the fact that Lady Luck or the Fates or whoever you prefer to picture doesn’t owe you anything. There will always be external factors that might cause your plans, however well laid, to gang agley.  What counts is how you deal with what life throws at you so you can carry on. Tenacity, not perfection.

To achieve sub-4 at London I’m very aware I would probably have to aim for faster than 9 minute miles all the way round. Honestly, that’s not realistic and it would be foolish and very stressful for me to pretend it is. 9:15’s or 9:20’s on the other hand, maybe that’s doable. It wouldn’t be sub-4, but it would be a PB.

So that’s why as things stand (and I know we’ve still got almost half the plan to go), instead of declaring my goal as going sub-4 or broke, I am going to say that my goal is to try to achieve a new PB at London, and to do as well as I can with the goods I’ve got on the day. That way as long as I head out from Blackheath on 28th April with the intention to do my best to do the best I can, then whatever happens I will have met my goal.

I feel better already.

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One thought on “Running Happy: Realistic Goals

  1. Very sensible. I would say that finishing a marathon at all was winning big style, but if you must make a goal then make it to finish for and happy. That may well mean a slower finish than initially hoped for BUT you get to run the next race you’d hoped for.
    I will never be speedy so I stopped listening to running club members making time plans that they would beat themselves up over if they failed in their goal and discovered that by just being consistent (actually, consistently slow) in training led me to some surprising results.
    Enjoy the marathon. And the run after that 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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