Friday, 24 July 2015

What I talk about when I should be working

Less than a month now until the first of my two hip operations, and (with apologies to Mr Murakami for the title) a short post outlining my current thoughts on what's on the horizon.

Is it really necessary?

Every time I wonder if I really need these operations, I'm reminded that I do. I mentioned a few races in my last post - Thursday's race at Girton was a little uncomfortable, but I didn't suffer much at all on either the Friday (sports day) or Sunday (Ekiden), and Tuesday's training run was fine, nothing hurt, and I couldn't wait to run again the next day. Wednesday's run was fine to start with, but from about halfway the old discomfort came back again, and it was a tough last couple of miles. I could easily keep going like this - I can manage short distance races fine, and also do a bit of training in between, providing I don't try to do too much - but ultimately, I'm not going to improve a great deal unless I can get back to a higher mileage, higher intensity training schedule.

A slightly tortured golf analogy

I remember when I tried to take up golf a few years back - I never really got the hang of it, but I used to go the local driving range and do my best to improve. Prominently displayed in large lettering on a sign at the range was a quote attributed to Albert Einstein - "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Oh. Fair enough.
I just did a bit of research on this quote, since I wasn't sure I'd remembered it word for word. As is often the case when you research something on the internet, you end up more confused than before you began - I'm now not entirely sure if it was Einstein, or Ben Franklin, or Mark Twain - but it doesn't much matter, because it's a great quote and it really made me think at the time about why I wasn't getting anywhere with my golf swing. Clearly, I was doing something wrong, and then just practising doing something wrong again and again. To improve, I first needed to understand how to hit a golf ball, before then practising hard to attempt to perfect it. So how did I manage this? The answer - a series of expensive golf lessons with the club pro - obviously, the reason why they displayed the quote so prominently at the range. 

Happy with that one. Trousers may have been a mistake though
I learnt a valuable lesson from all this - I have no talent whatsoever for golf, and it didn't matter how much money I threw at it, I was never going to be able to play at a decent level. To be fair, I improved enough to be able to enjoy playing a bit more, and didn't spend quite as much as I used to on replacement balls - but I could still easily get through a new pack each round. Lakes and rivers add not only to the aesthetic beauty of a golf course, but unfortunately also to the cost of a game!

The theory though was sound - acquire the knowledge first, before... practice, practice, practice. I think subsquently the reason I never managed to lower my handicap was not purely down to lack of natural talent - although this was undeniably a major factor - but it was also because I just didn't have the time (or money) to be able to play every week, and once a month wasn't often enough to get the hang of it.

Running - an easy sport?

The beauty of running is, as I've mentioned before, that it doesn't require a great deal of skill. I know some people who group runners into two categories - those that they feel are inherently talented, and those that they feel get there by dint of hard work alone. I'm not sure I agree with this - certainly, the runners I know who appear to be the most talented (ie quickest, and with the best running styles) I also happen to know work very hard in their training too. It's similar to that quote "the harder I work, the luckier I get." I'm not going to google that one to find out who said it - life's too short, and I'll only get confused. The point I'm trying to make is, you don't need specific skills or talent to be able to run, but you do need to work at it. There are certain things you can learn, be it how to improve your running style, how to choose what shoes to run in, how to approach certain races psychologically, etc, etc - but undeniably, above all else, the more time you're able to devote to running, the better you'll become. 

Unlike with my golf, I can (nearly) always find time to go for a run. Since I love reading about running, and listening to the advice of the many good runners that I'm lucky enough to know, I have learnt a lot over the last few years about how to get it right. I understand the importance of good running form, I've worked on my foot strike and my cadence, I have the right shoes, I know plenty of decent training routes, and plenty of decent types of training workouts - and I know which types of races I'm likely to do better in than others. In short, I have everything in place to continue to improve for many years to come - but only if I can apply my knowledge and experience to a decent training programme, and I can't do this all the time I'm struggling with discomfort.
This is my handicap chart from Run Britain. My running handicap (unlike my golf) has come down a fair bit since I began, but its no coincidence that the periods of significant improvement always correlate with periods of decent training.

It's not the end of the world - I'm much luckier than many, and I don't want to sound like I'm complaining - but I know that if I want to improve as a runner, it's a necessary step to have these two operations, even though it's going to put me out of action for a long time. The decision becomes harder every time I have a decent race - do I really need to do this? - but it's about whether I'm happy performing at the level I'm currently at, because without getting this sorted, I'm just entering races time and again off the back of very little work, and hoping for different results. Which is insanity, as Einstein almost pointed out. Possibly.

What level will I be able to run at after the Operations?

I'm hoping that, once I'm back running pain free, and am able to up the mileage and intensity of my training, that I'll push on significantly and tackle some much more demanding targets. High on the list is a sub 30min 5 mile - I'm close, but I'm aware that the difference between being able to average 6m15 pace - as I can now - and being able to hit 6min pace for 5 miles - to get under half an hour - is much bigger than it sounds. My current pace over 5 miles should be enough to get me a sub 40min 10km, but I haven't managed this yet either - so if I don't grab one at Littleport next week (more on this in a bit), then this will be my first main target once I return to training properly, which I expect (providing I can have the 2nd operation in December) to be Spring next year. Ultimately I want to be able to hit 6min mile pace for longer distances - a  10 miler in under 1 hour and a sub 1hr 20 half marathon would be very nice - and if I can do this, then my shorter distances could potentially become seriously quick - sub 18min for 5km at the very least.

But....I have to consider the possibility that, after the operations, I may not quite be able to get back to the level I'm at now. I am very fortunate to have Charlotte in my life - for all sorts of reasons of course, but within the context of this blog because of her understanding and her own knowledge when it comes to running. She knows better than any one else how important it is to me, and to my state of mind. She knows I'm going to find it hard being unable to run for so long, and will be a massive help in keeping me sane over the next few months. And she has also considered the chance that I may not be able to return to my current level - and has very sensibly suggested that the most important result will be not how quickly I can then run afterwards, but how comfortably.

Her idea is that, if I can't quite return to current pace, it may be that at the very least I find I can enjoy my running again, and that longer training runs then become the thing to do instead, leading to longer distance races again. In addition to the many great marathons out there, there is a whole world of ultra running to explore. All the time I can run at a decent speed, and improve, then this is not the direction I want to take - but her point is that if I can't get the speed back, I may find I can enjoy the greater distance instead. 

Next Up - Littleport 10km

Definitely my kind of race
And so to the next race - this coming Sunday, at Littleport. Deep in the Fens of Cambridgeshire, this race is completely flat, and so appeals to PB hunters across the region. Hills definitely make my condition worse, so I've been avoiding them wherever possible! I mentioned briefly above how my current 5 mile times suggest a sub 40 minute 10km should be achievable. To get a sub 40 minute run over 6.2 miles you need to run each mile at 6m27 pace. My last 5 miler at Great Bentley saw me average 6m13 - so do this for just one more mile (and a bit) and that's the target beaten easily. Of course, in reality I didn't run this pace throughout: I had a good first mile, a good last mile, and averaged around 6m20 pace for the remainder, with a couple of dodgy stretches thrown in for good measure. But even so, I am pretty sure that if the race had been a 10km, I'd have hung on and gone under the 40min barrier.

In fact, I've averaged under this pace for a couple of other 5 mile races, at Sudbury this year and Hadleigh at the end of last year, so I really ought to be able to manage this - but in three attempts at the distance this year, in addition to those in previous years, I've never quite got a 10km right. The tactic this time around is simple - don't try and get a decent first mile in, as I do for both 5km and 5mile races - instead, set off at the required average pace, or even slightly slower, and leave a bit for a push in the final mile. If I ran at 6m30 pace up until the end of the 5th mile, I'd have 7m30 left for the last 1.2 miles, which should be pretty straightforward since I always find a bit towards the end of a race. If I could match my 5 mile pace, I'd actually get well under the target - but given that it's always eluded me in the past, I'd prefer to be sensible, and to finish feeling I could have gone a bit quicker, rather than to set off at 6m15 pace and then struggle throughout.

This one was likely to be competitive
Psychologically, in order to do this, I probably need to start a little way back from the start line. In most shorter races I try to line up with the quick runners right on the line, no matter how quick they look - and this helps me to get off to a quick start - but it does usually then mean I get passed by a fair few runners in the middle part of the race, before clawing back positions in the last mile. This time, with a slower starting pace in mind, I know that if I start at the front I'll not be matching the speed of the leaders - so there's no point. Better to start a few rows back, and then gradually gain places (hopefully!) throughout the race.

And this one not so much....
There are a couple of courses where I've deliberately employed this tactic of starting further back - and at a slower pace - because I've known the first part of the race is much tougher than the last part -- I've blogged previously about the Newmarket Heath 6km, which I've run 3 times, and I approached this year's Kedington 5km in the same way. The feeling I've had, overtaking throughout rather than being overtaken, and recording notable negative splits (where the second half of your race is quicker than the first) means they rank amongst the most enjoyable races I've competed in, and this seems like a good way to approach Littleport.

But without anything on the course to slow me in the first mile (like the big hills at the start of Newmarket and Kedington) it's going to have to come down to being sensible. What can go wrong?!

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