Friday, 9 November 2012

Going from A to...?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about progression and goal setting lately and Alan's comment on my previous blog asking if his goals were too conservative made me think I should put my thoughts down here. I'm not totally sure where this is going so let's just start typing and see where we end up.


As I sit writing this I weigh around 77kg. My racing weight is 75kg but at 77 I feel pretty good. When Mich and I got married in 2003 I was 97kg (four stone heavier). Here's a photo from our big day...

Compare that to now (I'm the one in the middle)...

If you would have asked me on my wedding night what weight you thought I could eventually reach I would have wondered what you were doing in our hotel room on our wedding night. However, if you'd have asked me a day or two later I probably would have said I could loose 3-5kg. I certainly would not have thought I could ever be the shape I am now.

What's this got to do with running? Bear with me, there's a lesson about goal setting here that I'm hoping to reach.


I have always loved running, right back from when I was at school. But it always hurt. I used to suffer from agonizing knee pain which would flare up after three to four miles. My first race was the Liverpool 10k and my pre-race preparation consisted of downing two Ibuprofen, applying painkiller gel to my knees and saying a silent prayer to the running gods that the pain wouldn't be too bad. I had never run more than 4 miles before and when I completed it (in just under an hour) I felt like the King of the world. I didn't take my medal off all evening. On that same day Mich was running the Liverpool Half Marathon, a distance I was certain I would never be able to run. A marathon was just out of the question.

This is me completing the Lakeland 100.


So what am I trying to say? Well, natural ability does make a difference when it comes to finishing times; we can see that when we get to the elite level. But, I really don't believe that most people are running anywhere near their full potential. If you run a 2:05 half marathon this year it's easy to say you'll aim for sub 2 next year. But what if you are actually capable of 1:30? Are you limiting yourself in your physical and mental approach by setting goals which are just way too low? You may not be able to run that 1:30 next year but by aiming to improve only marginally you may never get there.

The record pace for our club 4 mile time trial is around 6min miles. I genuinely believe that most of the club are physically capable of achieving this pace over four miles with the right training but hardly any of those runners are looking at the record holder and thinking "yeah, I can do that". Now our work/life balance may mean we never reach our full potential but if we accept that this potential is way higher than we are currently running then it allows us to target big improvements somewhere between that top end potential and where we are now. 

I'm not a coach and I can't describe how to get from A to B. All I'm saying is that maybe you can open up your mind and consider that you could be aiming to go from A to C. Or maybe even to D.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Running through Hell

From the moment I hit submit on the entry form for the 2012 Hell Up North Hellrunner I had been dreading this race. I had a very definite game plan. One that would not be fun.

I have been entering Hellrunner off and on since it was first held in Delamere Forest around 2006. It's a fantastic mix of glorious trails with steep hill reps (the Hills of Hell) and chest deep freezing mud (the Bog of Doom). Back in that first year I was new to running, hadn't really done any trail running and was about 20kg heavier than I am now. It was a tough old day in the forest and I finished a broken man in around 500th place. The last time I entered was two years ago when I was racing my workmate, the super-competitive Barry. I managed to duck inside the top 100 on the Saturday event (and more importantly beat Baz!). This year I secretly wanted to go top 50.

So, how would I go about getting a top 50 place at Hellrunner? Simple! I would line up at the front of the field, beast myself over the hill at the start then hang on by my findernails for 10 miles. Now you can see why I wasn't looking forward to this!

The morning started really positively, with a nice walk in with Alan then a chat with a bunch of Spartans. We were taking just shy of 30 to this event (which is afterall on our turf) along with families so there was a great atmosphere.

Time to line up and I moved right to the front, just two rows back. After some taunting from the Devil Himself the airhorn sounded and off we stormed into the red smoke. The climb up Old Pale is familiar ground on our club's Tuesday sessions so it was really easy to gauge a hard-but-not-suicidal pace. As we approached the summit it seemed bizzar to be in Hellrunner and only have a hand full of people ahead of me. Even more bizzar was the thought that there were 2100 runners behind me.

I overtook a few people on the way up but was passed by maybe ten or twenty. Charlie and Kev were the only two Spartans ahead of me and as they are both superhuman I never expected to be able to challenge them. If another white shirt appeared I would tag them but apart from that I would stick to my own pace.

Over the top and we hit the descent; now it's time to pass everyone who went by me on the climb. I open my stride, add in some bounce and accelerate to fly through the field. Except everyone's going just as fast as I am. Remember you're at the front of the field this time Steve! I go tearing down the hill, shoulder to shoulder with another runner. We're both running out of control and each time we hit a corner we are trusting whoever has the inside line not to drift too far and wipe the other one out. Fun? I could sell tickets for this!

We hit the flat and loop back towards the start line for a pass through the supporters before heading into the forest. I am dying on my feet, just as I had planned. I guess that's good then! Nick pulls onto my shoulder and we run through the start area side by side. "Come on Steve...this is OUR forest". "Weeeeze.....yeah....gasp....".

We head out on fabulous single track trails, Nick generally setting the pace and me holding on. "Time to re-group" says Nick. Sounds good to me. It strikes me that it would be amazing to finish together...but that's still a long way away. We're holding our own and enjoying the running and I feel good enough to start taking turns in front. Just before we cross the road I pass a couple of people and find that Nick's no longer with me.

Through the Puddle of Peril without too much drama and as we hit the fire trails I put in some more effort and start moving past a few people. The plan was to be hanging on for dear life at this point, hating every step. But I am no longer sticking to the plan. I have a HUGE smile on my face; working hard but loving this race.

Hey, is that a Spartan Shirt ahead? Looks like Big Jase. I was certain he was behind me, I wonder where he overtook me? I pull up behind him as we hit the singletrack again and I have to laugh; I am working my ass off but J is just jogging along chatting to another runner about the High Peak 40. I jog along with them but I'm not talking...I don't have the spare breath for it. The trail opens up and I wish him the best and pull ahead. It turns out he'd got a little lost and had cut a corner. Once he realized he jogged back through the field to run in with Paul A. Getting lost in Sparta! Maybe it's time to revoke his club membership?

I continue drifting up the field with a silly grin on my face. Through the Hills of Hell with my legs intact and as we turn towards the finish I'm running in a bubble of about four runners, with the second placed lady just ahead. I know from previous years that we have some single track to go, then the Bog of Doom and then the finish. Actually, not this year! We turn a corner and are directed by a marshal into a lake.

The water is numbingly cold. I'm splashing along behind another guy when he suddenly disappears  I'm next and as the water hits my stomach it absolutely takes my breath away. We quickly realize that there is a ridge somewhere in the black, icy water and it's not a good idea to step off it. I pull ahead, aiming to get close to the lady in front. She's really handy: every time we reach a hole in the "path" she disappears under the water and reappears with a loud yelp. It's a perfect warning for me to watch my step. :-)

The water goes on forever and by the time we climb out my legs are totally numb and by feet feel like they have been replaced by house bricks. We cross the road again and I'm still in the same bubble of four runners. I try a couple of times to break away but they tag me and I get sucked back into the group. Beyond our quartet there's not another runner in sight, just empty trail. This is not Hellrunner as I know it! Where are  the crowds?

I run along with the group until we hit the final stretch of fire trail. I realize that I need to break away now or we'll be together right through the bog and that will mean hard work out-sprinting them at the finish. I put in a big effort and this time I sustain it. It hurts but I manage to pull a 20m gap and I feel the elastic break between us. I'm away!

I enter the bog right behind the second placed lady. I don't really notice the crowds, smoke and music; I'm just focused on getting a good line into the water and keeping my footing. I pass the lady and spend the entire Bog of Doom with people screaming "You're second girl!" at me. I manage to face plant in the water as I turn to acknowledge Neil and team. So many friendly Spartan faces shouting support. Brilliant!

Out of the bog and my legs are lead. As I start the lap of the finish field someone passes me and we have a battle up to the final corner when I put in a sprint to pull ahead. I cross the line in 1:46:17, in 38th place out of 2,113 runners.

I am absolutely delighted with everything about this race. I discovered that I can go out hard in a short race, re-group and still finish strong. Back when I ran that first Hellrunner and finished 500th I never, ever could have imagined that one day I would finish top 50. What a confidence boost! Now all I have to do is figure out how to go top 20 next year!